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East Ridge boys soccer: Raptors beat Stillwater, return to section championship

East Ridge junior Connor Stevenson mobs senior Alec Tostenrud following Tostenrud's goal that tied the game at 1-1 Thursday against Stillwater Area in Stillwater. The Raptors defeated the Ponies 2-1 for the first victory in school history over Stillwater. (Bulletin photo by Nick Gerhardt)1 / 3
East Ridge sophomore midfielder Keelan Spencer plays a ball Thursday against Stillwater Area in Stillwater. The Raptors avenged last season's Section 4AA championship loss against the Ponies with a 2-1 victory to advance to the section championship for the second consecutive season. (Bulletin photo by Nick Gerhardt)2 / 3
East Ridge junior midfielder Samuel Ruiz-Plaza plays a ball Thursday against Stillwater Area in Stillwater. Ruiz-Plaza set up both of the Raptors' goals in a 2-1 victory in the Section 4AA semifinals off a pair of corner kicks. (Bulletin photo by Nick Gerhardt)3 / 3

Seventh-ranked East Ridge will return to the Section 4AA championship game for the second consecutive season after picking up a 2-1 victory Thursday in Stillwater over ninth-ranked Stillwater Area that meant more than just advancing for the Raptors.

Third-seeded East Ridge (14-1-2) had never defeated the Ponies (12-3-3) in school history, going 0-7 in that span, including a 6-0 defeat last season in the Section 4AA championship game in Stillwater. Last year’s loss served as a motivator this season for the Raptors, whose only loss this season came against Stillwater when the Ponies won 1-0 Sept. 24 in Woodbury.

 “I don’t think that thought escaped anybody’s mind,” East Ridge head coach Anthony Bidwell said of last season’s championship loss. “It resonated with us throughout the season even. It was disheartening to lose a match like that in a big game.”

This season the Raptors entered the game with more determination and composure to rally from an early 1-0 deficit. Senior Danny Munter scored the game-winning goal in the 69th minute off a corner kick from junior Samuel Ruiz-Plaza.

Stillwater grabbed a 1-0 lead on a goal Nathan Purdie in the 14th minute off a direct free kick from 20 yards out.

East Ridge displayed resiliency and maturity to rally back in the 19th minute when senior captain Alec Tostenrud scored off a corner kick from Ruiz-Plaza that bounced his way after junior Connor Stevenson won a header off the kick.

“Our composure tonight was a lot better than last year,” senior captain Joseph Kays said. “Last year, playing in it was a lot more stressful. We didn’t have that swagger coming into it. Today we were prepared, we were ready and fully equipped. All of our players were fresh and we all felt confident in beating these guys.”

It showed throughout the game as the Raptors had more scoring opportunities. East Ridge played dangerously and finished with 19 shots, 10 of which were on goal. The Ponies finished with 12 shots, only five of which were on goal. The Raptors also had six corner kicks for the game while Stillwater had just two.

In the first meeting of the season between the two teams the Ponies bogged down the middle of the field to prevent East Ridge from building its attack, but in the second meeting the team shifted its attack to a more direct approach, which paid dividends.

“We were looking to play more direct balls, but looking to possess through the backline and get them to a side where we can get angles, play balls in behind or we could play off a target,” Bidwell said. “That was our objective. In the second half we thought that would win the game for us and sure enough it did.”

The victory sets up a matchup with No. 1 seed and second-ranked North St. Paul (16-1-1), which beat Cretin Derham-Hall 3-1 Thursday in the other semifinal match. The Raptors knocked off the Polars last season 1-0 in the semifinals when North St. Paul held the No. 1 ranking in the state. The Polars boast one of the most prolific scoring tandems in the state with Tyler and Justin Oliver. Justin Oliver leads the state in goals with 34 on the season and Tyler is fourth with 18, but leads the state in assists with 28. The game is Tuesday at North St. Paul.

“We have more confidence this year and that helps,” Tostenrud said. “Our work rate has increased dramatically since last year. As long as we work hard we’ll be OK.”

Prior to the win over Stillwater, East Ridge opened the Section 4AA tournament Tuesday with a 4-0 victory over White Bear Lake at East Ridge High School in Woodbury.

Samuel Ruiz-Plaza scored two goals and had an assist against the sixth-seeded Bears while sophomore Jarrod Ronquillo added a goal and an assist and Connor Stevenson had a goal and an assist.

The shutout win marked the 12th time this season the Raptors have shutout an opponent and stretched their streak of shutouts to four games.

-Nick Gerhardt