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DES MOINES -- Whatever it takes.

Union coach Hunter Zempel could hear the urgency resonate from his senior leader Courtney Powell's voice as she made her desire to compete in the state soccer tournament clear a few weeks ago.

"That determination, that drive, she wants to keep going, keep going," Zempel said. "Other girls see that and people build off that. That's all you can really ask from your top players."

Powell has lit up the scoreboard with a state single-season record 71 goals this spring after opting to just play club soccer while serving a key role as a sprinter on Union's state runner-up track team a year ago. The talented Iowa State soccer recruit has yet to compete on her state's biggest high school soccer stage following a sophomore season that ended with a controversial red card forcing her to sit out Union's first round loss to Iowa City Regina.

Beyond the goals and individual accolades, Powell has emerged as a valuable teammate within a youthful Union roster. That guidance will be crucial when No. 3 seed Union (17-2) opens state tournament play against No. 6 seed Waverly-Shell Rock (14-4) 3:15 p.m. Thursday at Cownie Soccer Park.

"She's absolutely fantastic on the field," Zempel said. "Everyone knows she's one of the best players in the state. Her leadership and drive every single day at practice, wanting to be the best and pushing the team along, I really think has helped this young group of girls."

Waverly-Shell Rock coach Lauren Bauer certainly knows the type of challenge her team will face in this first-round battle of Northeast Iowa powers. Bauer was a member of Union's first state qualifying team in 2009 and played alongside Powell's cousin, Darian, who set the state's previous single-season goals record.

Union beat Waverly-Shell Rock in overtime during the opening round of the 2009 state tournament, and the two programs have played each other at least once a season.

"I think it's always been a fun rivalry from back in the years when I played there all the way up until now," said Bauer, who has filled her schedule with multiple larger schools and ranked opponents. "It's fun playing tough competition and seeing good teams."

Bauer sees similarities in Courtney and Darian Powell's work ethic and natural anticipation to always be in the right place at the right time. Courtney Powell scored the lone goal when Union defeated Waverly-Shell Rock on April 11, but W-SR and 1A state qualifier Denver are the only teams to hold this year's Knights to a single tally.

"We like the challenge of it," Bauer said. "We know what to expect and we're ready to formulate a gameplan in order to shut her down."

Similar to Union, Waverly-Shell Rock's starting lineup is filled with youth. The Go-Hawks graduated seven senior starters from last year's team that reached the state semifinals.

"This team has come together quickly and we've made a lot of progress over the last two months," Bauer said. "It doesn't surprise me at all that we're at the place we're at. I knew there was a lot of potential in this group and I couldn't be more proud of them for how far they've come and how well they've been playing together."

Following a 2-1 regional final winner over a Spencer team who was at was No. 7 in the final Class 2A rankings, Waverly-Shell Rock has now qualified for state four consecutive years and 12 times overall.

"They're fundamentally sound," said Zempel, also a former prep soccer player who was two grades younger than Bauer at Union High School. "They're really good at keeping our possession. Defensively, they keep their shape very well. We've got to be patient, play our game, try to impose our will, keep working and give it our best shot."

With so many key players returning for each squad, Zempel feels this local competition on the state stage will pay dividends for both programs.

"That's the kind of stuff that builds soccer in this area," Zempel said. "I hope we can push each other and see who's the best team. It is great both teams are very young and talented and it should be fun for the upcoming years."

Cyclones seek first state victory

Fresh off a thrilling 3-2 overtime win over No. 3 Waterloo Columbus, Denver's second-ever trip to the Class 1A state soccer tournament will open 12:15 p.m. Thursday against No. 4 seed Nevada. The Cubs were eliminated by eventual 2016 champion Davenport Assumption in the semifinal round after losing championship matches in 2014 and 2015.

Denver's players have invested plenty of sweat to get back to Cownie Soccer Park after a senior-led squad was eliminated in the first round of the school's 2013 state run.

"When I came in my freshman year it was more a rebuilding year for us," senior goals leader Johnnie Hill said. "As we got more people in throughout the community, we were able to build up that powerhouse that we had before."

Denver co-head coach Jackie Gielau is optimistic her team can compete with any in the 1A field. Senior goalie Carlie Knoll has been steady in net while junior Annie Place joins Hill as an elite threat up top.

"We've just got to continue with Denver soccer," Gielau said. "We've got to play possession and we've got to utilize our width. I think if we do that, and play to feet, we're unstoppable. We have an amazing defense and we have a 1-2 punch up top with Annie and Johnnie."

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Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for The Courier

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