Led by Althoff grad, Belleville-based women’s soccer team captures U.S. championship

Coach Lindsay Eversmeyer and her Belleville-based Fire & Ice women’s soccer team reached the mountaintop in just their fifth season.

With a roster that included some metro-east players, Fire & Ice defeated the San Diego SeaLions 2-1 in the semifinals Saturday, then nipped the Gulf Coast Texans 2-1 in the title game Sunday to win the Women’s Premier Soccer League championship at SilverLakes Soccer Complex in Norco, California.

The other final four team was the Boston Breakers Reserves, which lost to the Gulf Coast Texans in the semifinals.

“We were the only team there that had never won it before or been to the final four,” said Eversmeyer, 37, an Alton High graduate. “We were the underdogs, basically. We were seeded No. 2 going in, but we were still the underdogs because we had never been there.”

The WPSL and its 112 clubs are on the second of a three-tier U.S. “soccer pyramid,” which ranks teams on their competitive level. It is comprised of both professional/senior teams and amateur teams.

Fire & Ice, an amateur club, competes in the five-team Valley Conference with mostly Ohio-based teams.

Fire & Ice finished 12-0 and outscored its opponents 44-5. The team advanced to the final four by winning the Central Division championship the previous weekend at Belleville West High School, defeating TTi Bluebonnets (Texas) 4-1 in overtime and GSI Pride 2-0.

GSI Pride was coached by Huw Williams, the former coach of FC Kansas City.

“He had a star-studded roster that probably had seven or eight girls that had U.S. National Team experience from the U-23 level down,” Eversmeyer said of Williams. “When you looked at their roster on paper, you’re like, ‘This is going to be the game.’”

But Althoff High graduate Kelsey Dinges, who played at Miami (Ohio), scored both goals against GSI Pride to power Fire & Ice into the final four in California.

Dinges stayed hot. She scored the first goal against the SeaLions, a penalty kick, then scored both goals in the national-championship game against the Texans, including another penalty kick. Edwardsville High graduate Katya Hessel, at 29 the oldest player on the team, scored the second-half game-winner against the SeaLions.

“She had a great weekend. She was on fire,” Eversmeyer said of Dinges, one of three players on the Fire & Ice roster who have been with the team all five years.

“This will probably be her last year,” Eversmeyer said. “I told her, ‘You need to play like it’s your last. Just give it all and at the end of it, you can say you went out on top.’ That’s what she did. She was unbelievable the last couple of weekends on the offensive side.

“I’m glad, if this was her last season, that this is how it ended because she deserved it as much time as she’s put into it. This means a lot to her.”

Dinges, 24, is leaning toward “retirement.”

“You’ve got to go out on top,” Dinges said. “We had a good, cohesive team unit this year, and it clicked for us. We made it work.

“I did tell Lindsay (Eversmeyer) at the beginning of the year that this would probably be my last. I got a little teary-eyed before my last game. I played every game in playoffs like it was my last. I haven’t really completely decided, but I did play like that.”

Other five-year players were Triad High graduate Rachel Tejada (Illinois State) and Waterloo High graduate Cassie Kaiping (McKendree University). Assistant coach Jarius Holmes also has been with the squad for five years.

Other metro-east players on the roster were Kirsten Crabtree (O’Fallon, Missouri-St. Louis) and Lauren Kaempfe (Columbia, Southeast Missouri State).

“Rachel owned the role I put her in this year at center back,” Eversmeyer said. “That’s not her normal position; she’s a forward. But I told her I needed someone experienced and confident and skilled and creative – someone who could see the field – playing a center back position.

“She never said she didn’t like it or whatever. She’s a gamer. She’ll play wherever you tell her. She did so well at embracing that role.”

Eversmeyer also credited Kaiping for her defensive role alongside Tejada. Crabtree, meanwhile, excelled at left back.

“She’s a phenomenal player – super-fast,” Eversmeyer said. “And Lauren Kaempfe never came out of the game the whole weekend, same as Rachel. They anchored that back line. ... That experience in the back was awesome.”

Eversmeyer said every player made key contributions at some point of the season.

“We had all the right pieces. Even the pieces on the bench were crucial for us,” she said. “All across the board, we were very fortunate. Every player was talented. There were no holes.”

When she returned from California, Eversmeyer received a congratulatory email from North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, who has led the Tar Heels to 21 national championships. Dorrance also coached the U.S. women’s national team from 1986-94.

“I about fell. He’s an icon for me in women’s soccer,” Eversmeyer said. “The fact that he took the time to email me congratulations, or even recognize that I’m on the earth ... I was over the moon. I was like, ‘Did that just happen?’ I couldn’t believe it. I was real excited.”

David Wilhelm: @DavidMWilhelm