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Gallery: Tigers qualify for state

The Albert Lea girls' soccer team hosts the plaque for winning the Section 2A title Thursday against Mankato Loyola at New Prague. — Micah Bader/Albert Lea Tribune

The Albert Lea girls’ soccer team hosts the plaque for winning the Section 2A title Thursday against Mankato Loyola at New Prague. — Micah Bader/Albert Lea Tribune

NEW PRAGUE — Just like last year, it came down to a shootout.

Parallels between seasons were visible, but unlike the heartbreak the Albert Lea girls’ soccer team felt last year, the Tigers’ sideline had tears of joy.

Albert Lea defeated Mankato Loyola 1-0 with a 4-1 mark in the best-of-five shootout Thursday in the Section 2A finals against Mankato Loyola at New Prague.

“I was so relieved,” said Tigers senior captain Holly Wichmann. “Last year, it ended badly, and I’m so happy we had the chance to redo it this year and get it right.”

After 80 scoreless minutes of regulation and both 10-minute halves of overtime, Albert Lea’s shootout lineup was perfect, which led to a berth in the Class A state tournament.

In the shootout, Albert Lea started with a goal by Wichmann. The Crusaders tied the score with a goal by Emily Gaspar.

Callie Hanson found the net as the Tigers’ second shooter. Mankato Loyola’s Megan Knutson missed. Megan Kortan gave Albert Lea a 3-1 lead, and after a miss by the Crusaders’ Nora Coughlan, the weight of the season was on Ella Zelanak.

“I felt the pressure, but I knew I had to ignore it,” she said.

Zelenak drilled the shot, and pandemonium ensued.

“We hit all four PKs. That’s what you call being in the moment,” said Albert Lea coach Rick Barnhill. “When it gets to that point, it’s a psychological thing. It’s mental, not physical. The ball’s only 12 yards away.”

The Tigers kept their composure, despite shooting in front of Mankato Loyola’s student section. Barnhill said he asked the referee to move the penalty kicks to the other end of the field because his team had home field advantage, but his request was rejected. Either way, Barnhill said he knew his team was prepared.

“We’ve practiced it since we first took the field,” he said. “Every day we have our mental imagery — our visualization session — for 3 minutes.”

Despite bombarding Mankato Loyola’s Kit Krmpotich with 37 shots on goal — compared to the 14 that Albert Lea’s Kathryn Flaherty fended off — and posting almost twice as much time of possession, the game was a struggle for the Tigers.

The penalty kick location was a speck on Barnhill’s laundry list of questionable calls by the referees.

Aside from multiple flops by the Crusaders, which resulted in skewed foul totals — Albert Lea had 19, while Mankato Loyola had five — the Tigers’ Megan Kortan scored a goal that was nullified with 8 minutes left in the second half of regulation.

Taylor Thompson had an indirect kick near the box. She ran toward the ball and stepped on top of it to the point where the ball rolled forward. Kortan came from the other direction and scored the goal.

However, the referee ruled that Thompson hadn’t touched or moved the ball prior to Kortan’s kick. Barnhill was livid.

“This is what you’d call the long, hard, winding road,” he said. “It was just a grind.”

Last year, it was a grind for the Tigers in the postseason as well. The Tigers beat Mankato Loyola 2-1 in a shootout during the section quarterfinals and lost 1-0 in a shootout against Mankato West in the finals.

Albert Lea (12-3-2 overall) will continue its season at the state tournament. Brackets have not been announced. To advance, the Tigers snapped Mankato Loyola’s seven-game winning streak.

“I’m so excited to be headed onto state,” said Zelenak. “It’s unreal. At the beginning of the year, that was my No. 1 goal.”