Hillary Haarstad possesses the skills to crack the starting lineup for just about every girls soccer program in the Big Nine Conference.
Her current team, though, just-so happens to be one of the few where this isn’t the case.
Occupying the same position as reigning all-conference sophomore, Ezra Oien, Haarstad has accepted her role as an overqualified backup forward and has flourished in the first four games of her varsity career, culminating with a game-defining scoring barrage against Austin on Saturday afternoon.
“She’s coming off the bench, but she is right up there with Ezra and Abby (Vetsch),” Owatonna coach Nate Gendron said. “I see all three equally in their skill sets. I really like seeing that I can pull a forward and I can trust whoever I throw out there.”
Haarstad’s memorable performance against the Packers started shortly after she checked into the game roughly halfway through the first half with her team grasping a somewhat tenuous 2-0 advantage.
By the time the Huskies broke for halftime, the game had officially transformed into a rout.
In what was likely her first touch of the entire afternoon, Haarstad buried a shot with 17 minutes, 4 seconds remaining on the clock and proceeded to ring up back-to-back goals in a 50-second span late in the first half that ultimately gave Owatonna an insurmountable 5-0 lead heading into the break.
The junior chipped in her second goal of the game from the right side to make it 4-0 at the 4:58-mark and officially secured the hat trick when she slid a shot on the ground that beat the Austin goalie with 4:08 to go.
Haarstad’s emergence this fall comes a year after she nearly made Owatonna’s ultra-deep varsity roster as a sophomore. Instead, she spent the 2019 season honing her skills at the junior varsity level and carried a strong work ethic into what proved to be a bizarre off-season.
In the absence of official club competition due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Haarstad spent hours on the field by herself refining every facet of her game, and the early results in 2020 speak for themselves as she leads the team in scoring with four goals, one ahead of Oien’s three.
“Hillary has a lot of individual skills and has a high soccer IQ,” Gendron said. “She was on JV last year and I think that burned a fire in her. In the off-season, she was out here (at the Owatonna Soccer Complex) working and I could see her as I was going on walks. She was putting in the effort and she was training. I mean, she put in a lot of work and it’s paid off for her.”
On Saturday, Haarstad found herself in great position to score on multiple occasions due in large part to a simple adjustment that Gendron made to his formation prior to the game. In an effort to give his top scoring weapons greater freedom to create in the middle of the field around the net, he essentially deployed a single attacking forward — in this case Oien as the starter and Haarstad off the bench — that would serve as the axis of the entire offense.
Not only did Haarstad flourish in the newfound position, but Oien started the game by pelting a number of dangerous shots toward the net before scoring the game’s first goal roughly 10 minutes after the opening whistle.