By Pete Hayes, The Telegraph
Marquette Catholic junior Annabelle Copeland helped lead the Explorers to the Class 1A State Finals and is the 2016 Telegraph Small-Schools Girls Soccer Player of the Year. She has verbally committed to Saint Louis University.
ALTON — The 2016 soccer season was indeed a strange one for Annabelle Copeland and her Marquette Catholic High teammates.
The Explorers tumbled out of the gate, righted their ship by midseason, then eventually advanced to the Class 1A state Final four after three wild – and unlikely – finishes.
And Copeland, the 2016 Small Schools Girls Soccer Player of the Year, was in the thick of it all – even when she wasn’t able to be on the field.
“It was a strange season,” Copeland said after she and her Explorers teammates had clinched the Class 1A third-place game at the state tourney in Naperville. “There were times we could have quit, but we didn’t.”
It wasn’t in their DNA, apparently.
In the third-place game at the state tournament at North Central College, Copeland scored a natural hat trick and led a Marquette comeback 4-2 victory over a high-scoring Williamsville team.
Copeland, who has verbally committed to play at Saint Louis University following her senior season, also earned Illinois High School Soccer Coaches Association All-Sectional honors. She plays club soccer for St. Louis Scott Gallagher.
Copeland was forced to miss three games late in the season with an ankle injury.
“There was a time I wasn’t sure if we’d get her back,” Marquette coach Steve Mitchell said. “It was a touch stretch.”
Copeland was one of several Explorers players who were down with injuries for extended periods of time during the season.
“It was tough at times,” she said. “We had a lot of injuries and the season didn’t start so well either.”
The Explorers, while not playing badly, nonetheless had trouble scoring goals and winning games early in the campaign. They were 0-3-1 before they finally tasted victory. They opened with a 2-1 loss to Triad, a 4-1 defeat to Springfield High, a 2-1 loss to O’Fallon and a 1-1 tie with rival Alton High before finally grabbing a 1-0 victory at Breese Mater Dei.
“We couldn’t buy a goal or a win,” Mitchell said. “But they girls stayed at it.”
Marquette finished the season 15-10-1. But don’t let those numbers mislead you, Copeland said.
“We played a really touch schedule,” she said while nursing that ankle injury. “It might not look that impressive, but playing tough teams makes us better.”
Mitchell agreed, but also added playing against larger Class 2A and Class 3A competition game in and game out could have been a contributing factor to his players’ injuries.
“It’s tough on the girls going up against the bigger teams with so much depth,” he said. “It’s pretty physical out there.”
Then came the weird streak of overtime penalty-kick victories in the playoffs – a streak that propelled the explorers to the state final four.
“It was hard to believe it kept happening,” Copeland said. “But by the (super-sectional against Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, we knew how to do it, for sure.”
The Explorers got past Waterloo Gibault on overtime PKs in the Class 1A sectional semifinals at McKendree University, then did it again against Columbia in the championship game.
At the ensuing super-sectional game at the University of Illinois-Springfield, they did it one more time.
“It was a fun way to end the season,” Copeland said. “We wanted to win the state championship, and that’s the goal next season.”