A Northwest Suburban Conference team was going to be state champions this year, that was for sure.
“I’m glad somebody from the Northwest won it — but I was hoping it would be us,” said Centennial coach Ginger Flohaug after the 2019 state Class AA finals.
Instead, Maple Grove wore the gold medals with a 2-1 victory over the Cougars in the duel of very familiar rivals Thursday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Three of the final four were NWSC teams. The No. 5 seeded Crimson dealt top-seeded Champlin Park its first loss 3-0 in the semifinals, then took down No. 2 seed Centennial in the finals.
Maple Grove led 2-0 before Centennial’s Khyah Harper scored her 26th goal of the season, on a header off a corner kick from Madison Monson, with 12:44 left. The Cougars kept furious pressure on the goal in the waning minutes but couldn’t get the equalizer.
“We had to battle them for 80 minutes,” said Crimson coach Ben LeVahn.
That was the only goal allowed by Maple Grove (18-2-1) in five section and state tournament games as they captured their school’s first state soccer title. It was their third state trip, all in the last three years. They were runners-up to Eagan two years ago.
“It’s been a long time coming for this program,” LeVahn said. “We were close two years ago, and our seniors showed that experience when things were tight.”
Centennial finished 18-3. They had won 12 straight since losing to Champlin Park in conference. This was Centennial’s seventh state trip, and second in a row reaching the finals. The Cougars were champs in 2016, their last state trip.
Centennial and Maple Grove battled for the 2019 state title after clashing in their section finals the previous five years, with Centennial winning the first three of those and Maple Grove the last two. The Cougars beat Maple Grove 2-1 in conference this year but the Crimson again got the one that counted most.
Until this year, Maple Grove, Centennial and Champlin Park all played in the same section, but wound up in three different sections this year with realignment. Good thing, as they were ranked No. 5, No. 4 and No. 1 in the final coaches rankings. A fourth NWSC team, No. 6 Andover, lost to Centennial the section finals.
“I think it speaks highly of our conference to have three of the last four teams,” Flohaug said.
Maple Grove had only five shots on goal but two of them were perfectly-placed and evaded Centennial’s peppy little goalie Jenna Lang. Kelly Kloncz, junior forward, slid one just inside the far post in the 18th minute. Emma Fournier, junior midfielder, drilled one just under the crossbar in the 42nd minute for a 2-0 lead.
After Harper’s header, off a corner kick from Monson that was right on the money, the Cougars had two more corner kicks the rest of the way but couldn’t generate a shot from them, while missing wide on one other opportunity.
The Cougars trailed 1-0 at half-time despite having a 7-2 edge in shots on goal. Crimson goalie Sarah Cortez was always there with a leap or a lunge to foil them.
“Their heads were down, and their body language, too, at halftime,” said Flohaug, “because we had so many opportunities and we and not finishing … We created a lot of opportunities (early) and we had to get back to that. Maple Grove was very disciplined and played us tight. They did not give us much room.”
“If we could have capitalized on a few of our chances we could have won,” agreed Harper. “It’s tough to lose, but we will just come back next year and work harder to win a state championship.”
Harper, a Star-Tribune All-Metro first-teamer as a junior, got the brunt of Maple Grove’s defensive efforts.
“They doubled me and were more physical than I was used to,” she said. “They were pulling my shirt, which I hadn’t seen before.”
LeVahn acknowledged: “No one person can stop her.”
About his goalie, LeVahn said: “We are strong on defense in front of her, and she usually does not have to come up big, so when she made some big saves early, our confidence definitely grew.”
Centennial all-tournament picks were forwards Harper and Olivia Lovick and defender Sydney Kubes.
The Cougars had reached finals with two overtime wins, over Lakeville South 2-1 on two goals by Harper and over No. 3 Rosemount 2-1 (double OT) on penalty kicks by Madison Monson and Lauren Ahles.