Header photo courtesy of Dalen Towne
No Minneapolis city team has ever won the state boys soccer tournament. Undefeated Southwest is hoping to change that, starting tonight against Rochester Mayo, who they'll kick off against in Farmington at 7:30 PM. But to understand how they got here, you first have to understand that none of this was supposed to happen.
Their team last year was good, but unspectacular, finishing 2nd to rivals Washburn in the Minneapolis City conference. That team also featured 2020 Mr. Soccer (awarded to the state's best player), Ramzi Ouro-Akondo. When this season kicked off, last year's superstar was playing at Marquette, and when Southwest wasn't ranked, it wasn't much of a shock.
When you talk to Coach Jamie Plaisance, it's immediately clear that he's one of the few people that hasn't been surprised by their success at all. When he says "we certainly don't feel like a Cinderella story," you can tell he really means it. He brings up the fact that his players have played in, and won, some of the biggest games in the state at the club level. That club success has typically been a double-edged sword for his program, because many of the players end up being closer to their club teammates, who they play with all the time, than their school teammates, who they're paired with for the fall only, but this year has been an exception.
One reason? Many of these guys have played together for years, dating back to elementary school and junior high. Captains Charlie Smith and Isaac Fox started off in the same first grade class together at Kenwood Elementary, and remember hearing rumors about fellow captain Liam Towne's skills when he joined from Lake Harriet Community School for tryouts on their first day as Freshmen at Southwest.
This is where Plaisance's belief in his team from the start comes in handy. "If we play the way we've been playing all year, we have as good of a chance as anyone to win it." His players are on the same page. When asked whether it would feel different to play in the State Tournament, Smith echoed his coach, saying "Once the game starts, it's all the same." It's no surprise the two of them speak the same language, as Plaisance had special praise for Smith, who he called "the heart and soul of the team," citing his willingness to do the dirty work and his defensive effort. The players clearly feel the same way about Plaisance, who they say pushes them, but also listens, even opening up to an idea from his captains last year to change their formation – a formation that they continue to use to this day.
It's very clear that the togetherness of the team is what's got them to this point. But it's not just a feel-good story. And it's not like they've merely been good – they literally haven't lost all year. Their success starts at the back, where they've only conceded 8 goals all season, anchored by defenders Towne and Cy Gleason, as well as goalkeeper Drew Pitts.
Their defense was stout in their exhausting double overtime victory over a very strong Washburn team in the sectional finals, where they scored with 50 seconds left before penalty kicks to send their team to State. The two teams have gone back and forth all season, with results about as evenly matched as you can get after Washburn opened the season in the top 10 rankings. The captains cite the early tie against Washburn as a turning point for the team, when they realized they could've won, and in turn just how good they might actually be. It was only right to seal their tournament bid against the same opponent.
This isn't the first great regular season team at Southwest, or the first one Plaisance has been involved with. He's coached the team since 2003, and last took a team to the state tournament in 2013. His connection to the team dates back even further to his days playing for the Lakers in the late 80s and early 90s, and was on the 1991 team that went undefeated in the regular season, only to fall in the section playoffs.
Talking to the players, coaches, and parents, this team seems to have something special. Their togetherness, willingness to fight for one another, belief in themselves, and desire to show up at practice ready to work hard are all things that jump out in every conversation. And, as the coach said, this also isn't new for them – they've been in big games, and won big games, before.
The team will have a tough road ahead, but after the four teams ranked ahead of them all lost in the Section finals, they'll start the tournament tonight as the #1 seed, taking on Rochester Mayo at a neutral site in Farmington. Win, and they'll head to US Bank Stadium next week for the state semifinals and, hopefully, the championship game.