When Meridian coach Terry Tigert came into the 2014 season, she knew what she wanted to do. The only question was whether she had the right players to do it.
The answer to that question has been answered with a resounding “yes.”
“I keep telling myself I was super lucky with this group of girls,” Tigert said in a phone interview.
Tigert came into a team that had gone to the state tournament three consecutive years while headed by former coach Andrea Ames and this team also had two players that had been there the whole way — Janessa Murphy and Lexi McKinnon. There was, admittedly, a little pressure, Tigert said.
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Tigert could have kept things the same — let Murphy and McKinnon, her senior captains, lead the team to a fourth state trip — and it very well could have worked.
Instead, Tigert changed it up. She moved McKinnon to a central forward role, pushed the team to a 4-3-3 formation, which the Trojans did play in at times last year, and let track stars Payton Lunde and Murphy run the wings.
“I trusted her and she has lots of experience,” McKinnon said in a phone interview. “She came in knowing what she wanted to do and it worked for us.”
The results? Meridian is going to its fourth consecutive state tournament — where they will face Seattle Christian Wednesday, Nov. 12, in Kent — compiling an 11-6-2 record and nearly winning the Class 1A district tournament — Meridian lost in a shootout to King’s in the championship game.
That’s not to say the Trojans haven’t had their challenges.
McKinnon struggled to adapt to her new role at the beginning of the season. The senior was used to being a goalscorer and suddenly, in her senior season, she was the point guard of the offense, the ball-winner, the distributor at central forward.
“At first it was more challenging as a mental battle,” McKinnon said. “It wasn’t what I was used to. It’s something new.”
It was a gradual process for McKinnon, but it was one she accepted. She was happy with the results it gave her team and she trusted Tigert — it would all come to her at some point.
And toward the end of the season it finally did. McKinnon notes the Ferndale game in October as one where things finally started clicking. Her teammates have taken notice.
“I think she’s grown a lot as a player and a leader,” said the sophomore Lunde, who recalls watching McKinnon play as an underclassmen. “She’s always been really good. She’s grown into her role. She knows where she is and works 100 percent the entire time. She’s a really good role model. She makes really good runs. She just knows what to do.”
But McKinnon doesn’t necessarily fit the classic mold of a central forward. She’s not the biggest player and she admits she has a hard time winning balls in the air.
That doesn’t matter to Tigert.
“She’s exactly what I wanted someone to be in that role,” Tigert said. “She’s strong with her body and not afraid to use it against big defensive players.”
It also helps to have two track stars to pass to on the wings.
Murphy and Lunde have both had success with Meridian’s track and field team as sprinters and they’re both on the same relay team. The connection between the two adds to the Meridian combination up top.
“When they get the ball down the line, they know someone’s going be there on far post. They don’t have to yell. They don’t have to commiunicate,” Tigert said. “It’s a trust relationship. They trust that the other one is going to be in the right spot at the right time.”
With the trio of forwards heading Meridian, the Trojans have tallied 53 goals in 19 games (2.8 goals per game) and Tigert said many of them aren’t just the garden variety goals.
“It’s nice to watch. It’s beautiful soccer,” Tigert said. “I always have a huge smile on my face every time they finish because they’re not just scoring goals but they’re scoring beautiful goals.”
Meridian will hope to continue the success its had Wednesday in the state tournament, and the Trojans will ride it as far as it will take them and hopefully with less shootouts.
The Trojans two district games and one bi-district contest all ended in shootouts, something that was tense but a bonding experience, McKinnon said. As long as they’re winning, they don’t much care though.
“This is the fourth consecutive year and we haven’t made it further than quarters,” Lunde said. “I hope to do better but I honestly don’t know what to expect.”
As for what happens to Murphy and McKinnon after the season? One of them already had to make a tough decision — whether or not to pursue soccer in college.
“As I work through high school, I had to be real with myself. Do I want to go to school to play soccer or go to college for college and that experience?” McKinnon said. “Just in my mind, I knew the schools I wanted to go to, I couldn’t play soccer at. I just had to be real with myself. It wasn’t in the future with me. It doesn’t mean I’m not going to miss it, it just doesn’t work.”
Meridian certainly will miss McKinnon too and with Murphy also leaving along with four other seniors, the Trojans underclassmen will have to step up. Much of that load could come on Lunde, who leads the team in goals this season.
“I feel it’s like a scary thought — what we’re going to do without them,” Lunde said.
That thought can wait for another time, now is the time for state and there’s nothing that’s going to stop the Trojans from enjoying that.