More than two weeks have passed by now, but Ryan Cook still remembers the emotions, the conversations, the feelings that descended upon his Idaho Falls boys soccer team when it earned its fourth win of the season. It’s over. It’s buried.
“It’s not a thought,” Cook said. “No longer a discussion.”
If that sounds dramatic, it’s because the Tigers’ fourth win of this season was hardly just their fourth win.
It came over Highland, a 1-0 decision, a slice of revenge for the way the Rams derailed the Tigers’ season in last year’s district tournament. Cook and his players don’t like talking about it — it’s buried, remember? — but here’s how it unfolded: Idaho Falls took the top seed into the 5A District 5-6 tournament, ready to make a deep run. But Highland, the No. 5 seed, topped Idaho Falls, which went on to the loser’s side of the bracket — where the Tigers lost to No. 4 Rigby.
Before they could process what happened, the Tigers’ season was over. No district championship. No state tournament appearance. Nothing. For a month and a half, an entire regular season, Idaho Falls looked like a team primed to make the 5A state bracket. Instead, the Tigers couldn’t escape the district one.
For months, Cook stewed over the abrupt ending. What went wrong? How could such a strong team fall so quickly? None of it added up. When Cook tried to find sense in it, not an iota turned up.
“No idea,” Cook said.
Which brings us back to that Highland win this season. Idaho Falls remembered their matchup last fall. To the Tigers, this one was important. So they earned a 1-0 win. Barely. But it was enough, not only to walk away victorious, but to vanquish the ghosts of last season, enough to shake off the demons that hung around in the corners of their minds.
“You could just see that weight lifted. In their mind, the weight’s gone,” Cook said. “So they’re more loose playing, loving it again. Just enjoying the game.”
“I’d also say Rigby was a good stepping stone for us,” senior Corey Bidstrup added, referencing his team’s 1-0 win over the Trojans back on Sept. 16. “I felt like we stepped up to the challenge and proved a lot that game. Learned a little bit about what we are as a team.”
The proof is in the results. Entering Sunday, Idaho Falls stood at 6-5 overall, 2-3 in 5A District 5-6 conference play. The Tigers reeled off three straight wins to kick off the season, dropped three, and now they’ve won two of their last four — including a convincing 4-0 win over Shelley Wednesday night.
That record might not raise many eyebrows — the Tigers check in at fourth in the conference, above only Highland — but that’s because the caliber of the district always does. The conference also features Rigby, Madison and Thunder Ridge, the latter of which is trying to return to state for the fourth straight season.
“In this area, right now, everybody’s so closely matched,” Cook said. “It’s inches. Everything is by an inch. A mistake here, a mistake there can cost you.”
That has several effects, but most of all, it does two things: One, it offers a possible explanation of how Idaho Falls fell in last year’s district tournament — Highland and Rigby may have been lower seeds, but only because of the strength of thee conference — and two, it helps the Tigers stay laser-focused. Mistakes they might be able to get away with against other opponents won’t fly against ones in this league.
In short, that will be the challenge for Idaho Falls over the rest of the regular season, which continues with a road test against Madison on Tuesday: Eliminate mistakes. Lean on captains Bidstrup, Gunner Watson and Braden Reisner. Get back to the district tournament.
So atonement may not be on the Tigers’ minds anymore, not after they beat Highland earlier this season. Peaking in October and returning to state will be.
“If we look over some teams, we wouldn’t be ready for them,” Watson said. “It’s like looking over any team. You don’t want to do that, looking forward to any of these games, districts. If you treat every game like it’s districts, then when it actually is districts, you’ll be ready.”