The heartbreak of the 2010 Class 5A semifinals is a rare topic of conversation for the Kapaun Mount Carmel boys soccer team, although the memory of giving up a goal in the final seconds to eventual champion St. Thomas Aquinas hasn't disappeared.
The disappointing result doesn't weigh on the Crusaders. Instead, that game instilled confidence that they can play with the best the state has to offer.
"They've won eight straight championships," Kapaun coach Alan Shepherd said of Aquinas. "When you can hold a team like that to one goal and even have a chance to win it. When you can play quality teams like that and actually compete with them, that gives you confidence."
Kapaun (16-3) is back in the 5A semifinals and will play Blue Valley (10-6-3) at 5 tonight at Kansas City Piper.
"We know we can really play with anyone," Kapaun senior defender Austin Williams said. "Last year we just didn't finish our chances. But we had a chance."
The Crusaders, who finished third last year, are playing their best soccer of the season.
"It's all coming together at the right time," Williams said. "The team has been bonding so well. Everyone knows where the ball is going. I think we all can see that now the team is finally coming together like it should have been during the season."
Kapaun (16-3) suffered through growing pains as it strived to build team chemistry.
"Early in the season we weren't possessing the ball well," Shepherd said. "We weren't using each other. That's evolved as we've changed things. We're playing like a real team.
"When you do that, things open up and things get better, and all of a sudden, you have better chances to score and the more you have, the more you put in."
Senior defender Ryan Ball especially appreciates how his team is distributing the ball.
"We're really quick on the ball," he said. "We're doing quick, one-touch passes and getting it to the strikers."
Shepherd changed his lineup frequently, looking for the best fit, the best formation for his players.
"If I don't like something, I'll change it," Shepherd said. "So I was constantly changing things, changing people around, taking people in and out."
Asked if he wondered if Shepherd was crazy because of all the changes, Williams laughed.
"I'd say at one or two points," he said. "But I've always trusted in Coach. He's been coaching so long, I think he knows more than I do."
It could have been disruptive, but Shepherd credits having a versatile, adaptive team.
He finally settled on a 3-5-2, where the Crusaders defend as a group.
"If we don't defend as a group, it just breaks down," Williams said. "That's why our chemistry is so important. We have to defend together or we'll get scored on.
"Then when we get the ball, we have seven guys on offense, and we can attack really quickly with it and create opportunities to score."
Kapaun has players who work well in the system, too.
Drue Benning and Brenden Bombardier have been integral pieces, along with Williams.
Shepherd calls the left-footed Benning a coach's dream — even though the senior doesn't talk much.
"He works hard every single minute of every practice and every single game," Shepherd said."... His work ethic is incredible. You put that along with a great skilled player and a great attitude, and you've got something."
Bombardier's competitive side has helped the Crusaders, and he finishes well.
"He's got a cannon for a shot, as does Drue," Shepherd said. "Brenden creates a lot of things with his ball-handling ability, and couple that with his shot, and he'll create his own opportunities."
Defensively, Williams is the leader vocally and with his play. He organizes the midfield and the forwards, and he's strong technically and physically.
Goalkeeper Obi Mashnouk is tough in goal, too.
"He is intimidating," Shepherd said. "He's a big kid, he's a strong kid.... He's a good goalkeeper, a big kid with a big wingspan, and he holds the ball well and distributes the ball well.
"If you look at last year's semifinals, he had 25 saves and just played an incredible game."
Kapaun needs to have another strong semifinal game tonight. If the Crusaders do, they have a chance at their first title since 1997.
"We only have two games left," Williams said. "It's pressure and we cannot really make a mistake. But we're excited."