Expectations are as high as they can be for the Brainerd Warriors girls soccer program.
The bar is set high for the 2021 squad that features a lot of returning players off a squad that finished 9-2-1 overall and fell to No. 2 seeded Maple Grove in the Section 8-2A semifinals.
“Our goal is to win the state tournament and that’s not out of reach for this group,” Brainerd head coach Grant Gmeinder said. “It’s a big goal, but it's not out of reach.”
The excitement comes from a successful summer season as well as a competitive preseason scrimmage against top-notch competition.
A large core group of this year’s team won the USA Cup at the end of July in Blaine and trained hard with Gmeinder and other coaches.
“We went up to Duluth Saturday, Aug. 21, for some preseason scrimmages with Mounds View, Cretin-Derham Hall, Champlin Park and Hopkins and we were just very pleased with the competitive level there,” Gmeinder said. “We were happy with how we played up there. Outcome wise it’s the best that we’ve done up there. Not necessarily the best we’ve played overall, but the way those scores turned out we’re excited about this group.”
Brainerd moved to Section 8-3A this season, which is a change since the Minnesota State High School League added a third class. Other than the No. 3 and a few different teams not much is different with that move.
“The state high school league basically just split 1A into 1A and 2A and moved 2A up to 3A,” Geminder said. “It didn't really change a lot for us, but more the realignment changed. Maple Grove is out of our section and Bemidji is back in and for the first time, Sartell is in our section.
“It’s kind of nice for us in that we have another conference team back in our section and then another northern team in Bemidji. It certainly helps with scheduling. We get a lot more section teams on our schedule just naturally, which is a good thing.”
Other teams in 8-3A will be Buffalo, Elk River, Moorhead, Rogers and St. Michael-Albertville.
Also, new this season is the Northern 218 Tournament held in Moorhead later in the season.
“The Duluth East coach kind of proposed it two years ago,” Gmeinder said. “Of course we couldn't do it last year. We’re really excited about it. We’re calling it the Northern 218 Tournament. It’s Duluth East, us, Bemidji and Moorhead. It will be a rotating host each year so Moorhead will host it this year and then one of the other schools will host it next year. Every four years we’ll get to host it.”
Brainerd will play Moorhead Friday, Oct. 1, and Bemidji will face Duluth East. The winners would then face off and the losers would play each other on Saturday. There will be a traveling trophy.
“I think it will be a great test for us with two section teams and Duluth East is always competitive,” Gmeinder said. “It will just be another thing for us to strive for, which is really cool for high school kids to have multiple goals throughout the year. Obviously, our No. 1 goal is to win the state tournament, but we know that’s a really big goal. For us to set more obtainable goals throughout the year, too, those will be really fun to work toward.”
Another goal is the Central Lakes Conference title. Brainerd will carry a 37-game unbeaten streak against CLC opponents into the season. Brainerd is 36-0-1 against conference opponents. The tie came Oct. 8, 2020, against Alexandria.
Last season, Brainerd outscored its opponents 44-6. Its two losses were to Moorhead and Maple Grove by matching 2-1 scores. The Warriors finished with nine clean sheets, or shutouts.
In net for Brainerd will be sophomore Peyton LeMieur.
“She started a number of games for us last year,” Gmeinder said. “Peyton came into camp in just incredible condition. She’s one of our best athletes overall in terms of physical testing and things. I think this year, more than anything, she’s utilizing that athleticism more. As a ninth-grader, she wouldn’t leverage that athleticism to her success, but she’s doing that a lot this year. On top of that, she just looks a lot more confident and I think those two go hand-in-hand.”
In front of LeMieur is a young, but experienced group of defenders in juniors Molly Hagelie and Cally Robertson along with junior Ally Dwyer and sophomore Molly Pohlkamp. Senior Emerson Holcomb-Smith and sophomore Eva Oium will rotate in at defense.
“Just to have Molly (Hagelie) and Cally back, those two were such a huge part of the team last year that didn’t give up a goal through eight games. A lot of leadership and steadiness from them and then with Molly (Pohlkamp) and Ally, who played last year, we’re excited about what they can do, too. It’s a good balance of experience and youth. Next year we won’t be looking for a whole new backline, but we’re not brand new either.
“Emerson is a good communicator and will be a great asset coming off the bench with her energy and leadership. Eva has had a great first week and a half and we’re excited about her. She could move up into the middle as well.”
Senior captains Avery LeMieur and Emma Tautges are back and will handle the midfield responsibilities. They’ll be teamed with Emma Balsley who started at defense last season, but will move up to mid this season. Sophomore Alice Balsley will rotate in at the mid. Gmeinder said she’s had a good camp.
“When we think of Avery, she is such a great leader by example, especially in practices,” Gmeinder said. “She wants to win every rep. If we’re going (1-player vs. 1-player) she wants to win it. If we’re going (2-players vs. 1-player) she wants to win it. It doesn’t matter if we’re just doing runs across the field. She wants to win that. Just that example from your captain and a three-year starter it trickles down.
“Emma is a kid who has just made steady progress. She’s just always someone who comes and improves and if you give her 10 minutes in a game, she’ll fight to play 15 minutes. She’s an ultimate role player in soccer. She knows her role and then she works to expand it and not settle. She keeps pushing to do more.”
On the attack will be fellow senior captain Lexi McElfresh along with juniors Emma Sheflo and Gabby Eckman. Juniors Paige Yeager and Gretchen Paysse will help on the offense.
“Lexi had a tough year last year with minor injuries, illnesses and things,” Gmeinder said. “She just looks fresh and healthy. She worked really hard this summer. She came into camp in the best condition of her life with her testing. She’s ready to have a big year.”
The key to fulfilling Brainerd’s high expectations will be the defense and Gmeinder is confident with his team’s defensive approach.
“This team is similar to last year’s team in that we’ll hang our hat on defense,” Gmeinder said. “What I like about this group is that it’s not just the backline defending. It really starts up top with Emma Sheflo, Gabby and Lexi. I really think that’s where we’re going to hang our hat. We’ve been talking about how we are going to win the biggest game of the year. Sure we want to win every game, but we want to win playoff games and in soccer that starts with defense.”
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop.
Saturday, Aug. 28: hosts New Prague 11 a.m.
Tuesday, Aug. 31: hosts Moorhead 7 p.m.
Sept. 2: hosts St. Cloud Apollo 7 p.m.
Sept. 7: at St. Cloud Tech 7 p.m.
Sept. 9: host Sartell 7 p.m.
Sept. 13: at Sauk Rapids 7 p.m.
Sept. 16: hosts Willmar 7 p.m.
Sept. 21: at Fergus Falls 7 p.m.
Sept. 23: hosts Alexandria 7 p.m.
Sept. 25: at Bemidji 1 p.m.
Sept. 27: at Rocori 4 p.m.
Oct. 1: Northern 218 Tournament at Moorhead
Oct. 2: Northern 218 Tournament at Moorhead
Oct. 5: at Sartell 5 p.m.
Oct. 7: hosts St. Cloud Tech 7 p.m.
Oct. 9: hosts Rogers 11 a.m.
Senior: Emma Tautges, Lexi McElfresh, Emerson Holcomb-Smith, Avery LeMieur
Junior: Breya Sawyer, Paige Yeager, Emma Sheflo, Allie Dwyer, Emma Balsley, Gretchen Paysse, Gabby Eckman, Cally Robertson
Sophomore: Peyton LeMieur, Grace Holcomb-Smith, Alice Balsley, Eva Oium, Molly Pohlkamp, Molly Hagelie
Eighth-grader: Lilly Derosier
Warrior girls soccer
Head coach: Grant Gmeinder, eighth season
2020 finish: 7-0-1 CLC, 9-2-1 overall
Career record: Career 86-23-4 (.761)
Captains: Avery LeMieur, Lexi McElfresh, Emma Tautges
Manager: Josie Kappes, Macy Peterson
Assistant coaches: Alexandria Hirsch, Sarah Melhorn, Mike Weissenfluh, Nick Weeks