MINOCQUA - The Northland Pines soccer team will head to Milwaukee for the state tournament on Thursday.
The Eagles' midfielders and forwards have gotten most of the attention, but the backbone of their team has never scored a goal.
Northland Pines remembers last year's playoff defeat and the Eagles were determined not to repeat it.
"We've just got a lot more push in practice I'd say and we're a lot stronger as a team," goalkeeper Colby Kruse said.
Few players have been more crucial to the Eagles' trip to state than Kruse.
"I don't really think too much," Kruse said. "It's just kind of instinct at this point. I react to whatever's happening."
Kruse has put his quick reactions to good use as Northland Pines' all-conference goalie for the last two seasons; a job that involves a lot more than just making saves.
"He's really the one who sees the whole field and he's the coach, or can be the coach on the field," assistant coach Rod Sternhagen said.
The Eagles have outscored opponents 18-4 in their playoff run, which means the ball has mostly been on the other side of the field.
That doesn't mean the Pines defense is short of things to do.
"You've got to keep your guys in tune with the game and make sure they're paying attention and not losing focus on what's in front of us," fullback Brett Wilkins said.
Wilkins and Kruse may talk a lot on the field, but their leadership off of it is a lot more subtle.
"If you're a good person, that portrays on the field and all the younger boys want to follow that," Sternhagen said.
This season, they've followed Kruse to the cusp of a state title.
"The only thing we're worried about is winning it all. That's our goal," Kruse said.
Northland Pines will play Sturgeon Bay at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
If the Eagles win, the final match will be played Saturday morning.