Crown Butler plays Cinderella as the Grizzlies win Region VI

Lionel Tipton
Butler soccer players celebrate a goal

WICHITA – In distance running, it’s called a finishing kick. That’s when a runner pulls away from the field to victory.

Butler’s women’s soccer team used that, and more, for the three days of the Region VI tournament, capped by a 3-1 title-game victory Sunday over Barton – a team that had blanked the Grizzlies, 4-0, just two weeks ago. 

The Grizzlies, who entered the tournament 5-8, won three straight at Stryker Sports Complex and are headed to the NJCAA Division I national tournament June 3-8 in Evans, Ga. It will be Butler’s eighth appearance in the past 10 tournaments and its first since 2018.

The Grizzlies (8-8) began their run with a 2-1 victory last Wednesday over 16th-ranked Cowley. They next faced No. 20 Hutchinson on Saturday and prevailed, 1-0.

The success could be traced somewhat to the offense catching up to the defense, Grizzlies coach Adam Hunter said.

“I think we’ve defended decent all year; we struggled to score goals throughout the course of the season,” Hunter said. “We got a little bit hot at the right time, found a way to score a goal or two and hold the opponent out of our goal just enough to get it done.”

But it wasn’t just clutch play that sent Butler to nationals. Cooler heads played a role as well.

The Grizzlies benefited greatly in the final from the ejections of two Cougars, who were issued red cards for questioning yellow-card calls.

The first ejection occurred in the 21st minute and cost Barton the services of sophomore defender Bruna Pereira. This gave Butler a man advantage for the duration of the match.

Barton’s woes were compounded in the 23rd minute when freshman midfielder Francesca Martella received a red card, forcing the Cougars (13-4-1) into playing 11-on-9 the rest of the way.

“Playing up a man definitely played into our favor, but that’s a testament to the discipline of our team, not to get caught up in all the drama and passion of the game sometimes and just try to focus on our job and finish with 11 players,” Hunter said. 

Shortly thereafter, sophomore Kelsey Ray was issued a yellow card, and Hunter said he had to take her from the game for fear of losing her to a red card.

“Kelsey got the yellow card … and I told her the game’s too hot to put you back in,” Hunter said. “The referee’s going into his pocket too quick, and that was a big play for us to take off, because there was no way I was going to risk losing a player and let (Barton) have a player back into the game.”

The Cougars received an at-large invitation to the national tournament, but they will have to play without Pereira and Martella for their first game because of the ejections.

Butler then quickly capitalized, getting goals from sophomore Rachel Wolecki and freshman Ellie MacDonald in the 78th and 85th minute, respectively. Both came to Butler from Scotland.

On the winning goal, Wolecki said she was set up by freshman Natalie Amaya, and she just did what comes naturally.

“It just came into me from the left-hand side,” she said. “I shot it, and it went into the top far corner, and everyone just came running to me.

“It was such a special moment.”

Not going during her freshman season has made going this year even better, Wolecki said. 

“We didn’t go last year, so going this year is really special,” she said. 

MacDonald, whose free kick provided the assist for Butler’s first goal by freshman Abbi Clark, said the Barton ejections provided some room to maneuver on the field.

“It opened up the space bars, and we could start to pass the ball better,” MacDonald said. 

While all this was going on, goalkeeper Maggie Koster, a freshman from Kapaun Mount Carmel, was sparkling in goal, stopping seven second-half shots and 15 for the game. She blanked the Cougars after halftime.

Koster said there definitely was a bit more comfort playing the region championship at Stryker, the same field as her high school days.

“It really did feel like I was back in high school,” Koster said. “But it’s an amazing field, and it felt like a home game for me.”

Koster said she’s excited for nationals.

“It feels really amazing,” she said.

A strong defense helped to decrease the number of shots she faced, Koster said.

“I feel like my defense and the people in front of me did their jobs where I really only had to be there in some key moments,” she said. “But I feel like everyone played their part, and we won this as a team.”

Butler hadn’t been expected to do much coming in, but when the Grizzlies upset Cowley and made the final by ousting Hutch, the momentum just kept going. All three teams had beaten Butler during the regular season.

But the momentum kept building, and with each tournament triumph, Butler’s confidence soared.

Going into the national tournament with a .500 record might make some opponents take Butler for granted.

Bring it on, Hunter said. 

“If they do, maybe we can get the same results we got this weekend,” he said.

Butler 3, Barton 1 

Barton 1;0—1

Butler 1;2—3

Goals: First half: 1. Barton, Melendez-Valles (Lee), 34:11; 2. Butler, Clark (MacDonald), 41:20. Second half: 3. Butler, Wolecki (Amaya), 77:05; 4. Butler, MacDonald (unassisted), 84:03.

Shots: Barton 8-7—15; Butler 3-7—10

NOTES: Butler improved to 8-3 in Region VI championship games and won its sixth title under Hunter... The Grizzlies are now 37-10 all-time in Region VI playoff games... Against Barton, Butler leads the overall series 19-5 and has won eight of the last nine meetings. In Region VI tourney games, the Grizzlies are 3-2 vs. Barton. Sunday’s game was the first time Butler had faced the Cougars in a Region VI title game.