Wise with age: Experienced roster has Sabers one win from state

Wise with age: Experienced roster has Sabers one win from state

CHAMPAIGN — Can a prep athletic team really be considered old when all participants are between the ages of 14 and 18?

By high school standards, sure. The St. Thomas More girls' soccer outfit falls into that category as 12 of its 23 varsity participants graduated on Sunday.

And so far in 2018, having that many upperclassmen on its roster has served coach James Johnson well.

Just how well? The Sabers are one victory from a trip to the Class 1A state semifinals.

"We know we have a special group," senior midfielder Hayes Murray said ahead of today's super-sectional matchup with Belleville Althoff (18-3-4) in Columbia. "We were just hoping to (use) the experience that we have to get back to where we were."

That would be the state plateau, which STM last reached in 2015 — when the present seniors were freshmen. The Sabers went 0-2 on the biggest stage, but still came away with valuable lessons.

"We have more knowledge about the sport. It kind of gives us momentum," senior defenseman Grace Aubry said. "It was so awesome. I remember everything from state, and I want to give that to the freshmen and sophomores and juniors that are on the team."

It wouldn't be fair to imply STM boasts a 21-4-1 record, and a viable shot at its first state championship in program history, solely because of its oldest participants.

But it's also important to recognize what exactly those girls have brought to the table.

Goalkeeper Brianna Hopper holds a school-record 16 shutuots and has a 0.80 goals-against average. Murray and Izzy Schmitt each carry 17 goals in addition to 12 and 26 assists, respectively. Emma Blomberg has garnered 14 goals and six helpers. Aubry and Kaia Bowen are key cogs for a back-end unit that has helped Hopper permit one or fewer goals in 22 of 26 outings.

Those statistics cannot be overlooked when a club is still playing in late May.

"It's easy to have that one person step up and shine above everyone else," said Hopper, who was not part of the Sabers' 2015 state jaunt. "But we have that experience, so everyone's been stepping up in multiple different spots. It's not just one person being that big leader. It's everyone taking that role in different spots."

None of this means STM's elder statesmen are beyond learning about themselves during a successful campaign.

Perhaps the most interesting development is Hopper growing from a News-Gazette All-Area honorable-mention choice to a netminder who broke a standard held by Lexi Wallen, The N-G's 2015 Female Athlete of the Year.

"Quite honestly, no, not at all," Hopper said when asked if she expected this rapid rise in her game. "Just because I hadn't played soccer until sophomore year. I'm guessing my growth was a good thing (for the team)."

Then there were STM's rare losses this year. Among them were setbacks against Mahomet-Seymour and Quincy Notre Dame. The former is playing tonight for a spot in a Class 2A sectional final. The latter could be the Sabers' state semifinal opponent later this week, should STM top Belleville Althoff.

The Sabers didn't sit around and pout after ending up on the wrong side of those scores. They went back to the drawing board.

"Mahomet, we lost, but the first half we were like ..." Murray started.

" ... it was a taste of what we can do," Hopper finished.

"The second half (against Quincy Notre Dame), our communication just sparked," Murray added. "We literally were out there moving and talking and playing like a family."

That's perhaps the most important aspect of this impressive season for STM. The Sabers will be plenty excited if they can knock off three more opponents and make history.

But everyone in the gold and hunter green — from the seniors to the freshmen — had an additional mission at the outset of 2018.

"Another goal we had was to become not just a team, but a family," Aubry said. "To be close with each other and have that family atmosphere."