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Senior duo combines for the game-winning goal against Grant to take down the Generals

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - The Sunset girls soccer team celebrates a big goal from senior Antonia Gaete against Grant last week.

In search of a challenging, non-league road opener, one that would both serve well for evaluation and boost its status in the Class 6A girls soccer power rankings, Sunset got everything it could handle from Grant.

The Apollos jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, watched it evaporate in the late summer heat, scratched back in the second half and then looked to their veterans to put it away.

Tied 3-3 with less than two minutes to go, Sunset senior midfielder Stephanie Niebergall nudged a side-footed pass to an open Emma Hamilton who hammered in the go-ahead and eventual game-winning goal to give the Apollos (1-1 overall) their first win of the season, 4-3, on Sept. 5 at the Grant Bowl.

It was a hard-earned, sweat-soaked, uncommon kickoff-time victory that'll be nice to have in the back pocket once the playoff picture comes more into focus. The Apollos leaned on both young and old alike, getting two goals from freshman Tessa Mild, a beautiful header from senior Antonia Gaete and the eleventh-hour heater from Hamilton.

"It's always about playing calmly for each other," Hamilton said. "We're constantly reminding each other to stay in the right headspace, keep your head up, and don't worry. Remaining calm is the biggest part."

Niebergall is the epitome of flat-line nerves, never getting too high or too low even when things aren't going smoothly. Minutes before Hamilton put the game away, Niebergall hit the left post on a penalty kick. Seconds before finding Hamilton, the captain's cross pass from right to left to an Apollo forward was cash, but not cashed in. Yet, Niebergall kept her cool, collected the rebound, spun and found an open Hamilton for the goal.

"Steph and I have been playing together for a long time, so we just have that chemistry," Hamilton said. "We're always looking for each other. It was just that automatic reaction to put it in the back of the net. And I think the entire team knows to keep your head up and look for someone. That was just one example of how we can always play together to get the result."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - The Sunset girls soccer team celebrates a big goal from freshman Tessa Mild against Grant last week.

If you've been around the Apollo program long enough, you know head coach Ben Durano would rather resign than schedule cupcakes in non-league play. He seeks out the best, fully aware that whatever lessons need to be learned should be absorbed by competing against elite competition. In the Metro League, where seemingly every club makes the playoffs, and in the postseason where each passing week brings a better and bigger challenge, there are no mail-ins. And while Sunset could struggle from time to time early on, the gauntlet always pays off in November.

After losing to South Eugene at home to begin the season in what Niebergall called a "letdown", the senior captain noted Sunset needed to step it up and did so down the stretch. Durano played a bunch of different combinations and subbed in young players throughout. Sophomore midfielder Malea Cesar's on the money corner kick to Mild tied the game at 3-3 in the second half. Junior forward Lucy Vanveldhuisen found a cutting Gaete in open territory for Sunset's first goal of the game. With senior defender Kelsey Wenckus sidelined, Durano funneled in several freshmen and let them get their feet wet in a big-time varsity game. Sunset led 2-0 at the half and the Generals answered with three goals in the first seven minutes of the second half, which forced the Apollos to dig deep. It was an experimental and eventually fruitful match, one that gave invaluable experiences to new pieces.

"I was proud that we pulled it out," Niebergall said. "It's way better to not play easy teams in the beginning. It won't be like that at the end of the season. We know that. In high-intensity games like this, it's good for our younger players to experience it early on."

The big picture bar at Sunset is always high. Few public school programs in Oregon can look down upon quarterfinal defeats and consider them relative disappointments. The Apollos are annually in the upper crest of 6A, a squad that sets the semifinals as its lowest goal and goes from there. Through training camp and two non-league games, both senior captains agreed there's a different vibe to this Apollo team.

"I think we have what it takes to bring it all the way," Hamilton said. "This year we're already a stronger team. We have a better mindset. We're in a better spot to head to the finals."

"I feel like we've already started at such a good level...we're just all so much closer as a group," Niebergall said. "Everybody from senior to freshman wants to go as far as possible and work as hard as possible. That just rubs off on everyone and gets everyone hyped up to do as best as possible."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior captain Emma Hamilton scored the game-winning goal against Grant in non-league action.

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