Eight of Kapaun's 11 starters have a connection that goes deeper than a shared uniform.
Four pairs of sisters lace the lineup. Teams preach a family atmosphere, but with Kapaun High girls soccer, it is real. And the connection is paying real dividends this season.
Coach Anthony Cantele said he has never seen anything like eight sisters in one starting 11.
"I was never worried after any of our losses because of that special bond from the bottom up," Cantele said. “I saw that every day. I saw it after losses that were tough to take in. A lot of teams would disperse and go home, but they were still hanging out with each other afterwards.”
There is Mary Clair and Molly Boulanger, Sierra and Claudia Fury, Megan and Emily Michaelis, and Ava Ayala and Eden Hadley. And there is a pair of cousins, too. All contribute in different ways.
Sierra leads Kapaun in goals. Molly is tops in assists. And Megan is one of the top goalkeepers in the City League.
And that is just the beginning.
It’s not like each one is going out and playing with 10 other strangers. Many of these girls have played with one another in youth and club soccer, so getting to play together in high school feels natural.
They talk with each other at the dinner table about highlights from games or practices and what needs to be improved, almost like an extended practice.
“Soccer is always on the brain,” Hadley said.
With that, the game tends to flow.
"I’ve played with my sister so much," Megan Michaelis said. “So I think I know when she will want the ball and when she feels pressured.”
There are still errors, though, and sometimes an older sister can get on a younger sister's case, but the girls said they never take anything personal. It is just part of the game. Likewise, before the game, the sisters are the ones pumping each other up, Claudia Fury said.
Kapaun has had an up-and-down season. The Crusaders lost the second game of the season 1-0 to Carroll in the Titan Classic semifinals. The next day, they beat Derby 4-1.
The real season changer came April 12, a 1-0 loss to Northwest. The girls felt they commanded the flow of the game and lost on some bad breaks. They said that defeat lit a fire in them to not feel that way again.
The next day, Kapaun did something remarkable. The Crusaders beat 16-time state champion St. Thomas Aquinas, and they won soundly. The 2-0 victory started a roll and sent a statement: Kapaun is legit.
Ayala said they have an ability to flip a switch in the second half and refocus when things go south or if they find themselves playing down to the competition.
Since the loss at Northwest, Kapaun is undefeated. The Crusaders beat Heights and tied Washburn Rural, another one of the state’s best teams.
Kapaun’s form shows a trend in Kansas high school soccer — that Wichita-area schools are getting better, and quickly. In 2016, Kapaun was run out of the Class 5A title game. Aquinas won 5-0. That is a seven-goal swing in less than two years.
Emily Michaelis said that loss two years ago was seen as an embarrassment. This year’s game was the first time they'd met Aquinas since the 2016 title game.
“I don’t think we were scared at all, but we had just never done it (beaten Aquinas),” Sierra Fury said. “Even with Carroll, I don’t think Carroll is any better than we are, but it is just because they are our crosstown rival — it’s Carroll; you start to think about it.”
In the past, Sierra said, teams have entered seasons as the odds-on favorite to win a state championship. That isn’t the case this year.
Still, Thursday presents a different challenge. Carroll boasts one of the best defenses in the area, with just four goals allowed all season. The Eagles lost to Washburn Rural 2-0 on Friday, but the Kapaun seniors have beaten their Catholic rivals only once.
With 2018 being her last season in high school, Sierra Fury said she is determined to even the series.
Kapaun will rely on four pairs of sisters to lead the way, including a group of seniors who have helped shape the path of Crusader soccer.
Cantele, the coach, said though the sisters' familial relations helps with trust on the pitch, the real impact is with the other players around them. Watching the siblings connect on and off the field has become contagious, he said.
“Them showing their relationships and their love with their sisters, I think that’s the real trickle effect that we have seen,” he said.
After this season, Kapaun soccer won’t look the same. Some of the sisters will be split up for the first time in their lives. The Crusaders will lose their leaders. It will be the younger sisters’ turn to lead the way.
But they aren’t thinking about that now. They are focused on Carroll, just trying to soak in the moment — the family.
“We are making memories, not only that we can someday share with our families, but all of us seniors are going to different schools — different states, even,” Sierra Fury said.
“We are moving away, but the last few months we’re here, we get to make these memories that we’ll remember the rest of our lives.”