The team celebrates winning the regional championship in Mattoon.

By Kyle Daubs

Before the 2013 soccer season started for the Charleston High School Lady Trojans, there had to be a feeling that something great was about to happen.

After losing just four players from a 15-5-2 squad, the Lady Trojans featured three collegiate players, two of which verbally committed to Eastern Illinois University. However, not even the best of the best thought this team was going to go undefeated in the regular season.

“Honestly, we went into that season with the same high hopes as every season,” said all-state forward Madi Fisher. “Nobody realized how good we were until we started to see the results.”

The greatest season in girls’ soccer history at CHS featured an appearance in the IHSA Class 2A Sweet Sixteen, an undefeated regular season, and a school-record for wins with a 19-1-3 record.

Before the year began, Fisher and teammate Ali Carlson verbally committed to EIU as juniors. Senior Megan Hjort committed to Kaskaskia before eventually playing her final two years at EIU. The offense also featured returning midfielders in Mackenzie Burgess and Sarah Gisondi. As a whole, the offense set a school-record with 104 goals.

To dive in deeper, four members of the team eventually finished in the top-10 in all-time goals scored in Fisher (68), Hjort (52), Burgess (51), and Carlson (41). And Sarah Gisondi set the record for most games played in a career.

“That team featured a group of girls that played club together for years,” said Burgess. “We knew how to work well together. Once we got to high school, it was the core of our team. From front to middle to back, we just had that connection since we had always played together.”

On the defensive side, it was just as good. The team returned all-sectional goalie Kristen Gisondi, as well as a lockdown outside wing in Cody Martin, senior sweeper Laura Pritschet as well as several other experienced defenders in Ashtyn Marucco, Ian FullerMoore, Catherine Smith and Emily Bumpus.

As a whole, the defense allowed just 17 goals all season for an average of 0.73 per game. To put it into even more perspective, seven of those goals were allowed in the final game of the season, a sectional final.

“For a lot of games we played, we were up early, so it allowed us on the defensive side to conserve our energy, watch, and predict what we needed to defend,” Pritschet said. “Having Kristen in goal. She was bored a lot of the time, but when she came out, she knew exactly what to do.”

The season started off in one of the wildest ways you could think. The weather was atrocious. A snow storm and multiple rainy days hit Charleston hard. The Lady Trojans couldn’t even find their way onto the field.

It was so bad that coach Paul Stranz told Brian Nielsen of the JG-TC that he had “never had to deal with weather this bad.” The soccer team was sharing gym time with the baseball, softball, and track teams.

“We were just trying to get any kind of training in,” said Sarah. “We were so frustrated, but probably not as frustrated as Stranz. We did ladders a lot. We had to do the pacer test a whole bunch of times.”

When the Lady Trojans did take the field, they were a machine. The Lady Trojans started the year off by winning the St. Teresa Invitational. The team began with an easy 8-0 win over Decatur Lutheran, but it took penalty kicks to defeat Mount Zion to even make the championship.

In overtime, Carlson, Fisher, and Burgess each made a penalty kick compared to just two made kicks by Mount Zion’s Morgan Engmann and Haleigh Armbrust. In regulation, Kristen Gisondi made five saves and saved two penalty kicks to seal the win.

Charleston followed that up with a 2-0 win over St. Teresa. The championship bid was a part of 12 straight victories. Urbana, Centralia, Olney, St. Teresa, Mattoon, Champaign Centennial, Urbana University, Decatur MacArthur, and Salem all fell victim to the Lady Trojans.

After the invite, Charleston outscored opponents 58-2 during that nine game stretch, including two 9-0 and two 8-0 victories.

“The number one thing was teamwork,” said Hjort. “Because we grew up playing together through club and high school, we knew how each of us operated. We knew Madi Fisher was fast. We knew Mackenzie Burgess was great at headers. We just knew how to play together.”

That set up a well-deserved hyped entrance to the Charleston Invitational; however, the flame died down after the Lady Trojans tied Champaign Central, a game that Charleston nearly lost.

In the final seconds of the match, Central’s Emica Quigley snuck by the Charleston defense and set up a one-on-one with Gisondi in goal. Her decision to come out of the goal proved true as she laid out to stop the line drive and keep Charleston’s undefeated season alive.

“Playing that team was difficult,” said Kristen. “A fair amount of those girls were people I played with since I was 10. Being a goalkeeper for a good team is hard because you’re not always busy, but we always practiced one on one breakaways. I just remember not feeling nervous. I knew it was really good because (assistant coach) Dirk Bennett told me it was a world class save.”

Trailing 2-0 late in its own tournament to Dunlap, Charleston High scored twice in the last 4 minutes, including this one to tie game with 1:06 remaining.

The next day, Dunlap nearly ended the undefeated streak as well. Dunlap led Charleston with 4:11 remaining until Carlson scored the first goal for the Lady Trojans. Then, with just 1:06 left in the game, Burgess scored the equalizer. Ultimately, Charleston and Dunlap tied with a final score of 2-2.

“It was one of our games that featured an actual tough opponent,” said Burgess. “A lot of our games, we were so talented we could beat a team 8-0, but it wasn’t a team at our level. That goal was really emotional for me personally because I know it saved the game, but it saved our undefeated season too.”

Charleston bounced back with a 5-0 win over Mattoon, but in the end it really left a sour taste after finishing the invite 1-0-2.

“It’s hard to put into words how frustrating you feel when you didn’t live up to the standard,” said Stranz. “We had a target on our back being one of the few undefeated teams in the state. I know the girls wanted it. They were some of the most competitive girls to ever put on a Charleston uniform. We just didn’t play some of our best soccer in that stretch.”

The Lady Trojans bounced back the following game by clinching the Apollo Conference in its first year of existence. In a highly contested conference rematch with the Lady Braves, both teams remained scoreless through regulation and overtime.

The shootout came down to the final kick. Kristen Gisondi, who made seven saves in regulation, slid to her right to block a PK, but the officials claimed she moved. On the next PK, she once again stopped the shot. Burgess, the team’s most reliable penalty shooter, made hers, as did Madi Fisher. Sarah Gisondi then drilled one into the upper left corner on the last shot to clinch the OT win.

“Mount Zion was just such a cohesive group, which is what I think made them so tough,” said Sarah Gisondi. “They did travel together just like us. I just remember going into that game sick of almost losing.”

After beating Monticello 7-1, the Lady Trojans coughed up a chance for another win. In a muddy contest with Mahomet-Seymour, Charleston led 2-1 with three minutes remaining, but allowed an own-goal down the stretch. The miscue led to Charleston’s third and final tie of the season.

Kristen Gisondi said that if the Lady Trojans had played Mahomet-Seymour on their original date, it would have been a different story.

“That game was personal because a lot of us had played club soccer with a majority of those girls in Champaign,” said Kristen. “We had beat them twice, while they beat us once. We asked if we could play Mahomet for senior night. We get to the field, and the sky opens up and it pours down raining.”

“They led us into the football locker room and the coaches left us alone for a moment,” continued Kristen. “I remember we started blasting music. We were so intense and absolutely focused. We were dancing around. We huddled up and we were ready to go. Then, they cancelled the game. I know that if we would have played them that first time, it would have been a different story.”

Sarah Gisondi, going in for a header against Salem, was named the team’s Most Valuable Player after the season.

Looking back on it, that might have been Charleston’s chance at winning 20 games for the first, and only time in school history.

“Mahomet was a big competitor for us, so I took it personally,” said Sarah. “We were determined to stay undefeated. It was a tough game. They fouled us a lot. To tie in the way that we did, I lost my cool afterwards.”

Charleston ended the regular season with an 8-0 win over Danville, and then cruised to a 7-0 win in the Regional opener against Decatur MacArthur. The Regional Championship featured a Coles County Championship with Mattoon, but it wasn’t easy beating Mattoon a fourth time.

Christine Ryan’s goal with 14:33 left in the second half proved to be just enough. However, the game nearly went into overtime. With 45-seconds remaining, Mattoon’s school record goal scorer, Lexi Rainwater, found herself in a one-on-one situation, but a bad bounce took the ball away from Rainwater and Gisondi made it in time to bat the ball away.

“Playing Mattoon was never a good soccer game,” said Kristen. “They packed the box, which made it really frustrating. The whole game was frustrating, but who hates Mattoon more than Charleston, right?”

The win sent Charleston to the Normal West Sectional which featured a two hour drive against Morris in the opener. Charleston used the wind to their back to defeat Morris 3-0 to set up their first appearance ever in the Sectional Championship with the host school Normal West.

The Big 12 Champions came into the game with a 21-4-2 record and was by far the strongest team Charleston had played all season. What turned to be a competitive game in the beginning ended in a 7-1 defeat.

“The game was right around prom if I remember right,” said Burgess. “I don’t think we had the right mindset, especially when we were down 3-1. It was hard to get the motivation back. It’s disappointing to think about since we were tied at one point and then they blew us out of the water.”

Junior defended Tess Marcodes wowed fans with her cartwheel-like throws to set up two goals, including a goal for herself that she literally threw into the goal.

“We knew they were going to be tough,” said Pritschet. “We were so used to playing teams around Charleston with the same people and the same patterns. When I threw in that goal, I remember wondering if that was even allowed. We had to be nearly at the goal for every one of those throws. It was ridiculous and we didn’t have the strategies or ability to stop it. It was one of those moments that I can accept that they were just better than us.”

Hjort’s game-tying goal to set the stage at 1-1 was a distant memory at halftime. Two goals set up by Marcodes’ throw ins, as well as her throw herself, set the score at 4-1 halftime. After three second half goals, the incredible season was over.

After the game, Normal Wests’ coach Val Walker added insult to injury. When asked after the game about Charleston’s performance, he said, “Not to discourage Charleston because they are a good team, but the thing with them is I don’t think they were ready for this level of skill and ability. We lose four games, but we play Chicago teams and high competition. My recommendation is to toughen up their schedule.”

“I don’t agree with that,” said Hjort. “Coach Stranz was really good at mentally preparing us for whoever we played. We just played a really good team. In the Charleston area, there aren’t too many teams that were that good. It’s soccer. You can play the game 100 different ways. When you play teams over and over again, you know how they play. We had never heard of any of those players and I think that was a factor.”

The awards for the team’s roster came quick. Fisher, Carlson, Burgess, both Gisondi sisters Sarah and Kristen, and Pritschet were named to the All-Apollo Conference Team. All six players, including Hjort, Marrucco, and Martin, were named to the Decatur Herald & Review All-Area team.

As for the team’s leading goal-scorer, Fisher was named IHSA All-State.

“I knew going into the season that we had a lot of us riding on it because a lot of us were getting recruited,” said Fisher. “For me, I was just really motivated. I knew if I wasn’t happy with the way I performed, I would just go back to the field and practice for a couple of ours. Soccer was a way for me to deal with my frustrations. It was a combination of everything. We wanted to perform to our max.”

The 2014 season tied the 2013 school-record with 19 wins, but the 2013 team was special. When looking at the CHS team now, the team featured nine players from sophomore to seniors that eventually played collegiately.

Hjort, FullerMoore, and Burgess each went to Kaskaskia College. Martin and Bumpus each played at Heartland College. Both Gisondi sisters went to Monmouth College, while Fisher and Carlson played at Eastern Illinois University.

“Those were some of the best years of my life,” said Stranz, who retired from coaching in 2014. “I don’t know if there will ever be a team like that. It might have been once in a lifetime. The girls played with each other competitively on and off the field. Academically, they were some of the smartest in their class. They challenged me as a coach and it made me want to be better. It was a perfect storm. Better yet, it was a perfect rainbow.”

Stories on this website would not be possible without the financial assistance of sponsors such as Consolidated Communications and Sarah Bush Lincoln. Please, support our sponsors who are listed on the website so we can keep producing stories like this on local sports.