The Grain Valley girls soccer team has one of the most difficult paths to the final four of the state tournament of any team in Missouri.
The Eagles take on the one-loss Kearney Bulldogs (18-1) at 5 p.m. today and the winner of that game will take on the winner of No. 1 state-ranked Notre Dame de Sion and Helias Catholic in the quarterfinals.
Unless there is a major upset, if Grain Valley can get past Kearney, it would face the Storm in the next round, a perennial power that is undefeated at 19-0 and is ranked No. 1 in the nation in the USA Today Super 25 expert rankings.
“Some of the Class 4 coaches have looked at our part of the bracket and said, ‘We don’t envy you guys this year,’” Grain Valley coach Tyler Nichol said. “Class 3 girls soccer the past couple of years is really, really strong. You can argue that it’s as strong as Class 4.”
Nichol and his players know it will be one of the biggest challenges in program history to make the state final four, something the Eagles have never done.
It will be the last chance to make it that far for 15 seniors on this year’s squad. The Eagles have plenty of motivation going into a big game against the Bulldogs. Last season, the Eagles (22-3-1) lost to Kearney 4-2 during the regular season and were eliminated by the Bulldogs in the playoffs last season with a 2-1 defeat.
“We don’t want to be done yet,” said Grain Valley all-state senior midfielder Rylan Childers. “We’re going to do our best and play better than we did against them last time.”
It will be a tough matchup as Kearney presents a tough, physical and athletic team. That may present challenges for an Eagles team that is more of a finesse, possession-oriented team.
“They come at you with energy,” Nichol said. “They have a Mike Anderson (men’s basketball coach for Arkansas) style team. I guess you can say they play the fastest 80 minutes of soccer. They come at you with pressure in the back. They are all over you from start to finish. No breathing room at all.
“They really disrupted our possession style of soccer last time we played them. They made it real difficult for us.”
So that means the Eagles might have to make a few adjustments.
“We want to keep possession like we normally do, but play a little more through and over the top – a little more direct than we typically do,” Grain Valley senior midfielder Marissa Schmitt said.
One of the players the Eagles will have to contend with is Caroline Kelly, a Kansas State commit who is the Bulldogs’ main scoring threat.
“They have some very good forwards that play on club teams,” Nichol said. “They have Division I talent and are good all over the field.”
But Grain Valley has some scorers of its own led by Childers, who has a stunning 63 goals on the season. She has been a huge part of a high-powered Eagles offense that has averaged a staggering 6.88 goals per game and has yet to be shut out. Kailey Boyer, Kailey Larson and Raena Childers also all have more then 20 goals each. Schmitt has 15.
“We have a lot of different targets that we can play to,” Rylan Childers said. “It’s not a certain person doing the work. It’s a team effort. (Because of that) I haven’t been man marked as much as last season.”
While the Eagles’ offensive firepower is there, they might need a little more than that to get past Kearney, Nichol said.
“We need to match their physicality,” he said. “It’s a lot about being mentally prepared and focused. We can’t make many mistakes. Sometimes we let the nerves get the best of us. We may have to play more simple or play more direct.”