ALMONT — Something about the postseason electrifies the Almont girls soccer team.
Maybe it’s the memory of last year’s improbable run to a regional semifinal. Maybe it’s the confidence of having a player with 68 goals since 2022.
Or maybe it’s because when the lights shine bright at this stage, the Raiders do too.
Almont rolled past Yale, 8-0, in a Division 3 district quarterfinal at home Wednesday.
Jesse Kautz had four goals and two assists for the Raiders, who improved to 12-3-3 overall and advanced to Tuesday’s district semifinal against Richmond. The Bulldogs finished the season at 6-11-2.
“We rolled out with a newer lineup,” Almont coach Mike Kepler said. “We’ve been changing the lineup all year and I think we finally got it in the right spot. I wasn’t that focused on the goals that were being scored, but how we were executing in our positions and how we were moving the ball as a team — and I liked what I saw.”
“For us, I feel like districts are when we really come alive as a team,” Kautz said. “But we’ve had injuries the past couple games and haven’t been ourselves. Our goalie has been out. So today, with the (new) formation, we found ourselves and were able to connect in a way that we usually don’t.”
The Raiders scored four goals (two from Kautz, two from Avery Peake) in the first 40 minutes to run away with the game. Backup goalkeeper Christina Weeks made seven saves and gave Almont its fourth shutout victory of the season.
“As a senior, a lot of us were playing on our home field for the last time,” said Katie Cafek, who finished with one assist. “So, being able to play one more game (if we got the win) definitely drove us a little bit more. We have four seniors out there who don’t want to go home and didn’t want this to be our last time playing together.”
It was the second year in a row that the Raiders eliminated Yale in the opening round. But Almont is a much different team than it was 12 months ago.
“Last year, we ended great, but we took a fifth-place finish (in the BWAC),” Kepler said. “It was still a great season though. We got better each game and got hot at the right time — knocking off the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in our conference in Armada and Richmond en route to the district (championship).”
In 2022, the Raiders pulled off back-to-back overtime upsets against against the Tigers and Blue Devils in a district semifinal and district final, respectively.
This year, Almont finished second in the BWAC with a 10-1-3 record in conference play. That put the Raiders right behind Richmond, which won the league title at 12-0-2.
“So building on that, we knew last year we were young,” Kepler said. “And we’re still young. But we have our seniors who are huge when it comes to guiding these younger girls and making sure we’re all being an effective part of our system — (going from) fifth place to second place, that’s a big jump.”
Almont attributes the leap to its cohesiveness.
“I feel like we’ve taken the next step because we just work as a team,” said Kautz, who has 34 goals on the season. “We’re always with each other and picking each other up. We’re always there to do our best and give everything 100% (effort).”
“We have a lot of players who are new to soccer,” Cafek said. “And they don’t always know exactly what to do. But we’re never yelling at each other (if something goes wrong). It’s always encouragement. Even our girls who are on the bench contribute to us … and I think that makes us go a long way.”
“It’s the culture that we’ve built,” Kepler said. “I’ve been here six years and we’ve been building that culture where every girl feels welcome, relevant and part of what we’re doing. We don’t get these results without our entire team.”
That synergy will be crucial Tuesday, when the Raiders face Richmond in a district semifinal at Powers Catholic High School in Flint. Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m.
The two rivals have already met twice this season, with the first contest resulting in a 3-3 tie on April 12. A month later on May 8, the Blue Devils cruised to a 5-0 victory in a game that was scoreless at halftime.
“(Win or lose), this is the last time we’ll ever play Richmond,” Cafek said of the senior class. “That could be the last BWAC team (we face) as seniors. So I think it’s important to make sure we play together one more time.”
“Obviously, Richmond had a great year,” Kepler said. “We had a close game here with them and tied it. Then, they took over (in the game) at their place. They had a solid season and credit them for a first-place finish. But our goal for the next few years is to take that No. 1 spot and stay up there. I’m confident in what we can do.”
Contact Brenden Welper at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @BrendenWelper.