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Linden's girls soccer team has a shot at history

Soccer   | Bill Khan

Linden's girls soccer team has a shot at history

Linden — Losing to a rival is one thing.

Losing to that rival in the single-elimination format of the state girls' soccer tournament, then watching that team march all the way to the state championship game adds another level of agony to the defeat.

Linden came into last year's district championship against Fenton full of confidence. Linden had defeated the Tigers 5-0 just 10 days earlier in a game that, admittedly, was closer than the final score indicated. With tournament survival at stake, however, Fenton turned the tables to beat the Eagles, 3-1.

From there, Fenton played Richland Gull Lake in the Division 2 final and lost, 1-0, in a shootout.

The Tigers' neighboring rivals could only watch their rivals' postseason run unfold from a distance, haunted by nagging thoughts of "what if?”

"We were all mad at ourselves," junior midfielder Alia Frederick said. "That's awesome they got that far. We want to get that far, because that would be amazing. I couldn't imagine playing in the state finals. That would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. That feeling that it could've been us haunts us and pushes us. To lose to them in the (district) finals, I give props to them for making it that far, but it could've been us; that's what's pushing us."

One year later, Linden may get the opportunity to experience a state final, but will likely have to get past Fenton early in the tournament to make it to the last day of the season at Michigan State.

Linden and Fenton are expected to collide in a district semifinal at 7 p.m. on June 2 at Fenton. Both drew easy first-round opponents on May 31, Linden hosting Flint Northwestern and Fenton hosting Flint Southwestern.

Linden coach Kevin Fiebernitz expects Fenton to be an even tougher challenge in the districts than the Tigers were when they lost 2-1 to Linden on March 30. The teams also meet at 6 p.m. Monday at Fenton in their second Flint Metro League encounter.

"Matt (Sullivan, Fenton's coach) runs his team different," Fiebernitz said. "He subs a lot, gets a lot of kids actively playing. Then, at the end, they'll try to run you to death."

Fenton has the tournament experience, but Linden has been the hotter team this season. The Eagles are ranked No. 4 in Division 2, allowing only five goals in 18 games while going 16-1-1. The only goal they've allowed in their last 11 games came in a 1-0 loss to Flushing on May 3. That's the only game all season in which Linden has trailed.

The high ranking attracts some attention that might not otherwise exist for the Eagles. Linden has never been beyond the regionals, reaching to the regional championship game twice (1998, 2011).

"You know what?" Fiebernitz said. "I'd be satisfied being at 10 or out of the rankings and fly under the radar. We just don't talk about it. I don't ever bring it up with the kids. That's just the opinion of somebody else. The bottom line is you've got to come to play; the other teams don't really care. It puts a bull's-eye on your back, and you've got to come to play."

The Eagles have earned their high ranking by proving themselves against some elite programs.

Linden has been overshadowed over the years by Grand Blanc and Flint Powers, the two heavyweights in Genesee County. Both teams boast state rankings this season, making it even more impressive that the Eagles were able to beat both teams, winning 2-0 at Powers on April 12 and 2-0 over Grand Blanc on April 23 at the Saginaw Heritage Showcase.

Grand Blanc, a Division 1 finalist last season, is ranked No. 5. Powers is the second-ranked team in Division 3. Another impressive result for the Eagles was a 0-0 tie in the Heritage Showcase against Troy Athens, which has been ranked as high as No. 12 in Division 1.

"At the time, I didn't know it was a Division 1 showcase," Fiebernitz said of the Heritage event. "We're a small Division 2 school. We're probably one of the smaller teams in our division. We got thrown in less than a week before it happened, because they had an opening. They called Cathy (North, Linden's athletic director) and they filled it.

"Then when I saw the schedule, I thought, 'Oh, I don't know if this is a good idea.' The girls proved me wrong. They went up there and just rocked it."

The Eagles have been rocking it all season, posting 13 shutouts. Senior Bridget Adams and junior Madison Paige, both of whom are expected to play collegiately, have split the goaltending duties.

"Did we see this start coming?" Adams said. "Honestly, not really, considering that tournament we went into was all D1 teams. The fact we came out with no losses was amazing. We only lost four people from last year. I expected to have a really good season, like we did last year. We're off to a really good start; hopefully, we finish the same way."

A cautionary note for Linden is the health of its leading scorer, junior forward Maddie Zayan. Zayan stepped in a hole during a game against Holly on April 25 and suffered a severe ankle sprain. She hasn't played since but holds out hope for a return in time for the districts. Zayan has 16 goals and 13 assists in 13 games.

"So, basically, we've had to shift some things around," Fiebernitz said. "Other folks are going to have to step up and play a role now."

Linden's girls are trying to make history for their school. The Eagles have never reached a state championship game in a girls' sport, with the 1981 volleyball and 2013 softball teams reaching the semifinals. The 2004 baseball team is the only Linden team to play in a championship game. In a sport with a meet format, the 2008 boys' cross country team won the school's only state championship.

Frederick knows how it feels to break new ground, leading the girls' cross country team to fourth place in the Division 2 meet last fall. That surpassed fifth-place finish in golf in 2011 as the best finish in a meet format by a girls' team at Linden.

Frederick took third place with a time of 18:30.6, three weeks after setting the school record of 18:10 at the Portage Invitational. She has committed to Eastern Michigan on a soccer scholarship, and is unsure whether she'll run cross country in the fall.

"I kind of want to play volleyball," Frederick said. "I want to get the most out of my high school experience, because I don't want to do anything but play soccer when I'm out of high school."

Frederick doubles up in the spring as a member of the track and field team. Frederick qualified for the Division 2 meet in both hurdles events last season, placing 10th in the 300-meter hurdles in 47.14 seconds and 21st in the 100 hurdles in 16.77.

"I didn't do as good as I wanted to, but hopefully I'll do better this year," Frederick said. "Soccer's definitely my main sport, but I like hurdles, so I do that."

Frederick did qualify in the 100 hurdles (15.79) and the 300 (46.21) this past weekend. She has a legitimate shot at finishing in the top five in the 300.

With Zayan on the mend, Linden's leading active scorer is senior Katie Wilkowski with 13 goals and eight assists. Frederick has 12 goals and seven assists. Freshman Audrey Steiert has seven goals and eight assists.

"I think six of us are on the same club team," Zayan said. "We've played indoor together since we were in middle school. We're so close off the field, that on the field it just clicks."