Stepping on the field for a soccer regional is different than the regular season, or the sectional. We could talk about the opponents or the pressure and nerves, because those things matter, but something else weighs on the players and is inescapable.
“The regional opponents are always so good,” Western defender Ella Biggs said. “Sectionals are good, but regionals are like ‘wow.’ Then you see the real soccer and see how everyone’s more aggressive, everybody’s foot skills are amazing. It’s go time. Everybody wants to make it to state.”
There we go. That’s the difference.
“I can feel it,” Biggs said. “I feel like our whole team, we can all feel it, and we can feel it from the opponents. Everyone wants it. Everyone’s going to go hard and put everything out there.”
That feeling is going to hit Western’s girls team with full force at 6:30 p.m. today when the No. 13 Panthers (16-2-2) host No. 10 Leo (17-0-2) in the opening round of Class 2A regional play. The winner advances to Saturday’s regional final against the winner of the game between No. 15 Hamilton Heights and Bellmont.
Western knows all about the regional round, but hasn’t been past it. The Panthers have won five sectionals in a row. In the previous four years they reached the regional final twice, in 2017 and 2019. To get there this season, they have beat an unbeaten Leo squad.
Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger dumped Western from the last three regionals, but Dwenger is now in Class 3A. The Panthers haven’t faced Leo, though Leo and Western did square off the first year of Western’s run. The Panthers beat Leo 1-0 in the opening round of the 2017 regional.
“It’s regionals. It’s a bigger deal than sectionals and most of the teams we play, we don’t know anything about,” Western midfielder Maddy Parr said. “You get more nervous when you don’t know anything about them.”
That means Western largely has to turn its attention inward.
“I think we really need to focus on playing our game and not panicking and working well together,” Parr said. “Stay calm, keep our heads in the right place and I think we’ll be fine.”
Western has to be focused on its strengths.
“I think we really need to focus on possession,” Biggs said. “When you can pass around people, there’s no stopping us really. And confidence, we all need to be confident in the game. And be aggressive because everybody’s going to be crazy aggressive.”
Biggs, Parr and fellow seniors Audrey Rassel, Sami Devlin and Annalise Bowlby have been on the squad for four seasons. They’ve contributed to Western’s run of sectional titles.
“I think playing together for the past four years has really helped us trust each other, and we’re really good at communicating since we’ve been on the field together for the last four years,” Parr said.
Parr, Biggs, Rassel and junior Abigail Fouts are the team’s captains.
“I do feel responsible more [as a senior], and more as I’ve grown up,” Parr said. “As you get older you do feel a lot more responsible for the team. We needed a rebound year this year. We had a new coach [Sam Parr] and this year we’ve kind of clicked and it’s been very beneficial for us.”
Western made the regional last year but took all season to find its way, finishing 7-9. This year’s team has won 11 straight heading into today’s game.
Biggs also feels a responsibility for what happens next.
“Yes I do, because I also don’t want it to be our seniors’ last game,” she said. “Everybody doesn’t want it to be our last game, especially us seniors. I want everybody to work super had and try their hardest out there.”
Tipton has had almost a week off since winning the Tipton Sectional on Thursday. The No. 7 Blue Devils (10-4) host No. 10 Faith Christian (10-3-3) at 6 p.m. today in the opening round of Class A regional action. The teams did not meet in the regular season.
The Tipton-Faith winner faces the winner of the game between Fort Wayne Blackhawk Christian and Manchester in the regional final on Saturday.