Raising the Class 3 fourth-place state trophy Saturday at Kansas City’s Swope Soccer Village, the Union soccer Lady ’Cats enjoyed their first-ever state tournament experience.
“That’s been the best part about this,” Union Head Coach Matt Fennessey said. “Everybody gets a little taste of what it’s like and what you get when you get here. Wanting to get more is a great thing. We’ve got a lot of young kids who are going to come in and know this is the end goal and this is where we want to be every single year.”
It was the first time the Lady ’Cats had moved beyond the sectional round. In 2004, 2005, 2006, 2012, 2013 and 2014, the sectional round was as far as Union had gone in the state tournament.
“Kids really stepped up and contributed in the offensive and defensive ends,” Fennessey said. “It’s just going to continue to help our program build and go in the right direction. We had a lot of standout freshmen and sophomores who are going to do great things for us and our juniors are going to lead us next year. I’m looking forward to it already.”
While there are high hopes for the future, nobody is taking that for granted.
“To the girls coming back, cherish this moment because it probably isn’t going to come around again,” senior midfielder Georgie Bray said. “My four years, we didn’t even win the district and it all happened at once this year. I’m glad it was my last year because I cherished it extra. I knew it was all I could get. For the freshmen, sophomores and juniors, cherish it all that you can because this moment doesn’t come for everybody.”
Bray watched Rockwood Summit raise the district title trophies during her freshman and sophomore years. The Lady Falcons finished second in both of those seasons. Union was second in 2015 and was knocked out in the semifinals by Parkway West in 2016. Last year, Union reached the district championship game and watched Washington make a run to third place in Class 3.
Union could end up with different teams in its district. Rockwood Summit, this year’s state champion, could be reassigned to Union’s district again as a new cycle starts in the fall. Or, the road to the state tournament could be changed to a different, tougher direction.
Union graduates three seniors from this team. Bray, goalkeeper Lexi Garlock and defender Kennedy Reeser have graduated.
“It’s been a terrific ride with those girls,” Fennessey said. “Kennedy Reeser is an outstanding kid and an outstanding person. She’s been a great leader for us for these four years. Lexi Garlock has been in net for three out of her four years and she’s done a terrific job for us. She’s got almost every goalkeeping record at Union High School. She will be a tough one to replace. Georgie is a just a consistent anchor in the middle of the field. You lose a kid like that and you’ll notice. You put her in there and plug her into the lineup every single day and she gives everything she’s got silently as a leader out there for us. She’s just our workhorse. Those three obviously will be very difficult to replace. It’s not every day that you get a group of seniors like that who come in and contribute for all four years and really make a big difference on our varsity squad.”
Bray, who also made the quarterfinals with the softball team in 2016, was happy with what Union did this spring.
“It feels great,” Bray said. “This is as far as I’ve ever gotten in high school sports. It was a good day. It wasn’t as far as we wanted to go, but we’ll take it.”
Bray said the Kearney game was extremely physical, even after taking an early lead.
“It was very physical especially today,” she said. “The other team was being very physical up two goals, but we had to stick with them.”
Bray will attend the University of Central Missouri in the fall, majoring in actuarial science.
“I’ve got a bright future ahead,” Bray said.
Garlock was a three-year starter and only a knee injury kept her from being in net all four seasons at Union.
“It feels really good to know we’re the first team to make it this far in girls soccer at Union,” Garlock said.
While Union had dominated many of its games this season, Garlock knew every little thing could make the difference at the state tournament.
“You knew all of the games would be really close matches,” Garlock said. “There weren’t going to be any 5-0 matches. We knew all the teams would be really tough and there would be close games.”
Union’s best chance to win came in the semifinals against Incarnate Word. After the Red Knights scored, Union still had over six minutes to try and get an equalizer.
“I think we tried just tried to push up the field and get the goal,” Garlock said. “There was so little time. We did the best we could.”
In the third-place game, she said Union had to play from behind, something it rarely needed to do during the season.
“We didn’t start off with our best, like we normally do,” she said. “We tried to come back as best as we could after that.”
Garlock set many goalkeeping records this season, but credited the defense.
“I think we had strong and fast girls who helped to get the ball out and pass the ball around,” Garlock said.
Garlock will continue her career in the fall at Central Methodist University.
Reeser played many roles for Union during her career there, including as a forward and winger before moving to the defense this year.
“It feels pretty good,” Reeser said about having the fourth-place medal around her neck. “Obviously, it’s not what we wanted, but I’m happy to be here and I’m happy we got what we got.”
Reeser said the defense had its hands full with Kearney in the third-place game.
“They’re very physical,” Reeser said. “They know how to use their bodies. Being on defense, it was hard, but we worked through it and played hard.”
Reeser said falling behind 2-0 in the first five minutes against Kearney was tough.
“We had to regroup and get our focus back and play our game,” Reeser said. “Obviously we didn’t come out how we wanted to. We regrouped, talked about it and worked through it and came to play our game after that.”
Reeser will attend Maryville University in the fall and hopes to major in physical therapy. She’s still thinking about going out for the soccer team there.
“I did that while I was younger and I liked it,” Reeser said about her chosen major. “I like working with people and getting the opportunity to be a part of athletics in a way depending upon which route I go in physical therapy.”
One thing that hasn’t gone unnoticed at Union’s playoff games is a sea of red in the stands. Union has filled bleachers from Stierberger Stadium to Springfield, Bolivar and Kansas City. In Bolivar, many were in lawn chairs, but the common theme was that they also put in the miles to support the program.
“It’s been a continued thing throughout,” Fennessey said. “Our town has gotten behind us. Our parents, relatives and alumni have been here. It’s very nice. You don’t think of it like this, but we went to Springfield and we got to include some other family members who live in the Springfield area and don’t get to come and see us every day. It’s the same here in Kansas City. We’ve got some alumni who now live here and they were able to come and see us.
“Then there was everybody who made the trip across the state and supported these kids and pulled through and helped us get to where we were at. There wasn’t one game in the postseason run where we were outnumbered in the fan seats. It’s great to know that you have that support from the community and the families of Union.”
Union players became spectators for the Hospital Hill Run held in Kansas City early Saturday morning.
The Lady ’Cats cheered the runners as they came by the team’s hotel before they left to go to Swope Soccer Village for the third-place game.
“We realized we have all these people cheering for us and it’s nice to have that, so we went and cheered for runners this morning,” Reeser said.
The gesture did not go unnoticed. Multiple MSHSAA officials talked to the team about its gesture of good sportsmanship for fellow athletes.
“Even some MSHSAA people staying at our hotel came out and talked to us about how good the sportsmanship was with our team,” Reeser said.