Rarely does a team have the good fortune to find itself with a good blend of youth and experience.
For the four state-bound girls soccer teams from the Mississippi Athletic Conference — Bettendorf, Pleasant Valley, North Scott and Assumption — that blend has been key to each team's return to the Cownie Soccer Park in Des Moines. Each team made the state tournament last season, with North Scott and Assumption winning state titles in their respective classes.
"There's something in the water in the Quad-Cities," Assumption coach Jonathan Dreasler said. "It's the talent at the local levels, the feeder systems, everything."
Bettendorf, which faces 3A top-ranked Dowling Catholic today, is led by a pair of returning sophomores, Paige Wagner and Alina Steffen. The duo has combined for 35 goals and 17 assists this season, and had a part in all three regulation goals in the Bulldogs comeback win over Muscatine in the regional final, in which Bettendorf played seven underclassmen.
"Having a young team, the younger girls are nervous but they're all strong and reliable," Wagner said. "When it comes down to it, you play a lot of club soccer and once you're out there, it just happens ... when the tough gets going, we get going for sure."
Class 2A third-ranked Pleasant Valley, which faces Waverly-Shell Rock, has just two seniors on its roster, and is led in scoring by sophomore Ellie Kurth, who leads the 2A field with 29 goals after scoring 16 last season.
"When she's on, she's probably the most dangerous goal-scorer in the state," Spartan coach Richard Markham said. "She's big, she's strong, she's fast, she can hit a ball with her left and her right, and she can turn very quickly."
Of the four teams, defending 2A champion North Scott likely returns the most experience, with six starters back and nine seniors making their fourth trip to Des Moines. However, like Bettendorf and PV , the Lancers — who play Cedar Rapids Xavier — are led by sophomore Karli Rucker, who earned all-tournament honors last season. This year, Rucker has continued to develop, with a team-high 13 goals, sliding into the position vacated by last year's leading goal-scorer, Chloe Gottschalk, now at Eastern Illinois.
"Last year, coming in as a freshman and having that person I could look up to really helped," Rucker said. "I think ... when (you) have a freshman that comes in and will be seeing varsity minutes, it's good for them to see that and follow in someone else's footsteps."
For four-time defending 1A champion Assumption, seniors are still leading the way, most notably midfielder Riley Behan, who has a team-high 15 goals. That leadership has allowed the youth on the team to develop, and its done so at the most important time. Freshman Molly Gervase heads into today's game against Waterloo Columbus with 10 goals, five in the last four games, and classmates Annie Argo and Bridget Poster have grown considerably on the back line.
With FC America, Bettendorf Soccer Association, Quad-Cities United and other club programs in the area, North Scott coach Dion Ayers said he felt girls are coming into high school already with valuable soccer experience, meaning more time can be spent on teaching technical aspects of the game, in the offseason as well as during the spring.
Along with that club presence, Ayers and Bettendorf coach Todd Hornaday both pointed to the growing athleticism of today's youth, with many girls playing in multiple sports. Wagner, Rucker and Behan earned all-conference basketball honors this season while several Spartans were members of the 4A state champion track and field team and conference champion basketball team.
There are some, like Kurth and Gervase, whose only varsity experience is through soccer, but the natural athleticism allows other girls, whose main focus may be elsewhere, to contribute to their team's success.
"You can win games with girls on their athleticism," Markham said. "Speed kills."
All that youth has provided each team with added depth, something all four coaches said they thought will be critical this weekend. With temperatures expected to be in the 80s all weekend, it may be the team that can stay fresh through the grind of three games in three days that comes out on top.
Everyone knows what to expect.
"The fact that they've been there and they've done that, and last year we won it, we just need to show up and play like we've been there before," Rucker said. "Not get nervous and play as a team."