Steve Lewis/Durango Herald
It’s like a sibling rivalry, sans the biological bond.
For years, Bayfield High School girls soccer coach Jen Zelinski has been the runt of her former roommate/teammate relationship, taking routine and lovingly applied beatings on the pitch from Durango junior varsity coach Stephanie Hoar.
But Zelinski’s hit a growth spurt, and she found a Scandinavian secret weapon, too.
Swedish exchange student Sanna Penton led her Wolverines to a 3-2 victory over Zelinski’s former Fort Lewis College women’s soccer roommate and teammate Hoar at a blustery Wolverine Country Stadium on Tuesday afternoon with a tying goal, a tying assist, flurries of fancy footwork and, mostly, leadership to more than match.
“I think she’s more of an asset directing the girls because of her knowledge of the game,” Zelinski said of the BHS co-captain. “It’s like having another coach out there on the field.”
In a game where the still-undefeated Wolverines found themselves trailing for the first time this season – and trailing twice, no less – Penton’s quarterbacking helped close the gap, Zelinski said.
“It’s a huge difference, especially when we’re losing. She’s out there, and you can hear her every time,” Zelinski said of Penton’s on-field encouragement and guidance. “I’ve never had a foreign exchange student do that.”
The Wolverines needed it Tuesday, too.
Eleven minutes into the fracas, Durango’s Bella Bernazzani was taken down about 35 meters out from the Bayfield goal. Like a well-placed Third Crusade trebuchet shot, Bernazzani’s free kick flung up and over the Wolverines’ foot soldiers and found its mark just inside the stone wall fortifications of Bayfield’s Jerusalem – keeper Jaylie Ross – to do the first damage of the day.
Ross made one save Tuesday.
Four minutes later, Penton responded with a free kick of her own, this one from the penalty spot after Lindsey Reinmuth was tripped up just inside the box.
But instead of going over the wall, Penton just blasted through it.
“I know what I’m supposed to do,” Penton said. “Get down, left corner, safety first.”
The Demons weren’t about to give up their siege, though.
A booming clear from the Durango defense found Lizzie Wiegert near the Wolverines’ box. Not to be dissuaded by the three-on-one mismatch in front of her, Wiegert rumbled through the Bayfield defense, popped the ball through the gap and beat a diving Ross to the left corner to retake the one-goal lead.
The Wolverines had a handful of chances to tie the game back up in the second half of the first frame, including Penton’s attempt to pull a Bernazzani with a cannon-style free kick from about 30 meters out. But she missed just wide in the 24th minute, and the Wolverines went into halftime trailing for the first time in their 11-0 season.
“That’s a good thing. It’s going to help us prepare for state,” Zelinski said. “But it’s definitely nerve-wracking for me.
“We deserved to lose the first half. We did not play as a team; we did not play well; we were outhustled,” she said.
That changed in the second half, in no small part because of Penton’s footwork.
From the midfield, Penton helped keep the ball on the Durango side of the pitch for almost every minute of the second half. She abused defenders with tiptoeing-through-the-tulips footwork, slick moves, and even a behind-the-back volley.
“It’s from home. We practice a lot of skills and drills,” Penton said. “Just get it out there and don’t be afraid to lose the ball; that’s going to happen.”
That midfield control allowed the Wolverines to pepper Demons’ keeper Hannah Robertson with scoring attempts, while Ross stood around in the opposite goal.
Hoar said her defense made too many little passes instead of clearing the ball and, even though speedy Demons had a couple of good efforts on breakaway counterattacks, they couldn’t capitalize.
In the second half, Robertson made 11 saves as the Wolverines put nine shots on goal, while the Demons didn’t get a single shot on goal during that span and had just two total shots.
“I like to play goal,” Roberston said. “That’s my job. When I make a save, I have a sense of satisfaction.”
But Robertson couldn’t save them all.
“I feel like sometimes we get a little complacent when we’re ahead, and that’s what allows them to get shot after shot.”
One of those shots came with just less than 15 minutes to play when Penton did what teammate Keenan Moreta said the Swede does best: She found the open space.
A long pass from Penton found Moreta storming the Durango keep, and Moreta clipped the ball into the left net as Robertson made a run for the save.
“It was perfect,” said Moreta, the other co-captain. “It was a split right through.”
That’s not an anomaly, either, Moreta said. With Penton on the field, Moreta said hard-charging attackers like herself always can count on a “perfect ball to that space.”
And whereas some girls want the goal above all else, Zelinski said Penton isn’t one of them.
“She’s unselfish,” Zelinski said. “She’s told me she’d much rather have an assist than a goal. She doesn’t want the glory.”
Ten minutes later, it was Moreta’s turn to play wing woman.
She dropped a corner kick right in front of the Durango net for a Demon/Wolverine stir fry as red and white uniforms scrambled all over one another to get at the ball.
Lindsey Reinmuth found it and finished it for the go-ahead goal.
“I was really happy everyone got a touch on it,” Moreta said.
The win gives the Wolverines a 2-0 record over the Demons’ JV this year after they defeated Durango 1-0 in a cold, wet matchup early April.
For the six years that Zelinski has coached at Bayfield, the Demons by and large have dispatched the Wolverines with ease – until now.
“It used to be the levels were so different that it wasn’t much of a game,” Hoar said. The increased competition, she said, “makes it a lot more fun.”
“I was just pleased we got to play a good, tight game,” Hoar said.
And just like sibling strife, as the pair grow up, their rivalry is giving way to simple self-improvement.
After being handed her share of defeats, Zelinski said it’s exciting to return the favor to her longtime friend, but mostly it’s nice to have strong competition close to home that can challenge her girls and make them better.
Or even make them perfect, so far.
“It’s becoming less about her and I,” Zelinski said. “For me, it’s just making this a better program.”
The Wolverines will look to stay unbeaten and on top of the Intermountain League against Telluride (9-1-1, 6-1-1 IML) at 4 p.m. Thursday in Telluride. Last time the two teams met, the Wolverines won 3-1.