WATERLOO — Perhaps fate wouldn’t have it any other way.
A Denver girls’ soccer program that spent the previous three seasons knocking on the door of a return trip to the state tournament faced a familiar Northeast Iowa power Monday night in the Class 1A regional final.
No. 6 Denver not only found a way to beat a third-ranked Waterloo Columbus program responsible for two of its previous three postseason exits, the Cyclones also managed to convert an elusive corner kick opportunity in the seventh minute of overtime.
University of Northern Iowa recruit Johnnie Hill switched with freshman teammate Hailey Knoll, moving to the back post where she headed a well-placed feed from Ellie Foelske off the crossbar. Knoll then located the rebound in the midst of a scrum to score the game-winner as Denver defeated Columbus, 3-2, in an 87-minute thriller at TJ McLaughlin Field.
This marks Denver’s second trip to state, after previously qualifying with a 2013 win over Columbus.
“It was like a dream,” Hill said, reflecting on the final sequence. “When I saw that ball go in and the ref blow the whistle my heart stopped for a minute. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t because I was still in shock.”
Knoll’s goal ended a string of missed set piece opportunities for a Denver team (17-3) that will open state tournament play against No. 4 seed Nevada at 12:15 p.m. Thursday. It was the Cyclones’ first corner kick conversion of the season.
“We’ve had probably 150 corner kicks all season, and just went to state on one,” Denver co-head coach Emily Gielau said. “It’s about time we got that in and they made it count.”
Emily Gielau has shared coaching duties with her sister, Jackie, as they’ve taken over the soccer program their mom, Barb Gielau, initially brought to Denver. Emily had been an assistant at the school for six seasons while Jackie spent time coaching at Waterloo East, West Des Moines Valley and Pella before returning to her hometown.
“Bringing the (state qualifier) banner back home has been our goal for the past four years,” Emily Gielau said. “This program from the get-go has just been heart, all-in, all they can give. I couldn’t be prouder of the girls. They’ve worked hard in the offseason and we’re a family here.”
After a 1-0 loss to Columbus on May 5 in Denver, the Cyclones fell behind again in this rematch. Olivia Fain corralled a throw-in and cut the ball back to Emily Surma for a goal in the 10th minute.
Denver answered one minute later as junior forward Annie Place was taken down from behind on a breakaway inside the Columbus box. Place converted her penalty kick opportunity, and later found Hill who rolled in a shot from the top of the box across the net for her 42nd goal of season.
“Annie, me and her feed well off of each other, and we know how each other run,” Hill said of her go-ahead strike in the 21st minute. “She knew where I was going so she placed that ball perfectly, and I just took a touch and took the shot.”
Each team had missed opportunities over the next 50 minutes.
Denver goalkeeper Carlie Knoll made a diving save to stop Columbus’ leading scorer, Kiki Cabrera, on a near post attempt in the 34th minute, and Fain hit the crossbar from 25 yards out in the final minute of the first half.
Denver’s Lila Meyer had a nice move and just missed high with a chance to put the match away late in the second half, before Columbus’ Ana Ortiz came up with a clutch equalizer.
Ortiz corralled the ball in traffic at the top of the 18. She turned and ripped a left-footed laser to tie the score, 2-2, in the 74th minute.
While Columbus looked re-energized entering the extra period, a Denver team playing with injured senior captain McKenna Pollock cheering from the bench managed to find enough strength to score one more goal.
“They were dead, they were exhausted, but we’ve been in these situations before,” Denver co-head coach Jackie Gielau said. “They fought through everything. ... Just that heart and soul to dig that deep to get that goal off the corner shows what the entire team is capable of doing.”
It was a gut-wrenching loss for a Columbus program attempting to qualify for its fourth consecutive state tournament. The Sailors (14-5) own wins over three Class 1A state qualifiers and two state qualifiers in the 2A field.
“This game does not define our season or our program,” Columbus coach Julie Girsch said. “I get super emotional because everybody in this area knows that we should be going Thursday. We’ve beat some really good teams that are going to be down there. It really stabs at you. It hurts, but it just didn’t go our way today.
“Our seniors are so passionate about the game and they’ve just really stepped up as leaders. I’ve been so proud of their leadership and determination to do well. I’m just so proud to be able to coach them.”
Emily Gielau echoed that sentiment lamenting the pairing of top-six teams, “What’s unfair is these two teams both deserve to be in the state tournament and we deserved to match-up there. Unfortunately, this is how the cards get drawn almost every year.”
Hill, who plays club soccer with several of the Columbus players, was well aware of the type of challenge her team faced on this night.
“We knew that Columbus was going to come out and fight because they’re a very, very good team,” Hill said. “They have a lot of talented players, but we knew if we stick to our game we have full confidence that we can finish it and put it away.”