PARK HILLS – Emma Winkler anchored the back-line defense toward a third consecutive shutout, and stepped forward with confidence when the Mineral Area women needed a lethal strike.
The sophomore center back planted a 30-yard free kick for her fourth goal of the season, then assisted an insurance tally as the Cardinals achieved another soccer program milestone on Wednesday.
Second-seeded Mineral Area reached to the Region 16 women’s final for the first time, and qualified for the NJCAA Central district playoffs as a bonus by blanking State Fair 2-0.
North County graduate Ella Gant netted her second goal just 2 minutes, 20 seconds after Winkler broke a scoreless drought in the 66th to punctuate a poised and commanding performance by the Cardinals.
Alexys Cook made four saves over the final 10 minutes after rarely facing pressure through the previous 80, and Mineral Area (8-6-1) advanced to face top-seeded St. Charles on Sunday.
The result served as redemption for several returning players on the roster who endured a stunning and frustrating loss as the top seed in last year’s semifinal round.
With this season now guaranteed to last at least two more matches, the Cardinals can focus squarely on chasing an elusive region championship against the Cougars, who beat them 2-1 three weeks ago.
Mineral Area was called for seven of the first eight fouls on Wednesday, but established a physical tone against the third-seeded Roadrunners.
Leah Buerck produced five of the 17 shots taken by the Cardinals. Although her persistence did not draw whistles when knocked down twice inside the box, State Fair (10-4-2) remained on its heels defensively.
Substitute midfielder Kadelia Wilkins won an individual battle for possession near the center stripe, and began a sequence that helped MAC get the lead.
She circled to find Gant on a trailing run, and Roadrunners defender Briscia Zuniga committed a crucial foul when her sliding tackle upended Gant before she could shoot.
Winkler missed high on an earlier free kick in the second minute, but applied perfect touch on her next big chance that sank just beneath the crossbar and over keeper Nayeli Lopez for a 1-0 edge.
Before State Fair could collectively regroup, the Cardinals struck again. Winkler sent a long through ball on a counter attack to Gant, who one-touched past her nearest defender and beat a charging Lopez.
State Fair switched goalkeepers to Kateri Herrera, who received a favorable bounce when Mallory Mathes turned and lofted a long ball that clanged the upper right post with 14 minutes to play.
Cook withstood an aggressive final push by the Roadrunners from there, stopping two bouncing drives by Sabra Moon and Christina Trevizo before corralling a direct free kick in the closing seconds.
Mineral Area often attacked from the right side with Buerck and Mathes early on, and outside back Maria Decker had the primary responsibility of slowing them down.
Decker received a yellow card for shoving Kayleigh Slinkard after a collision prior to halftime. State Fair teammate Megan Toops landed then painfully on her shoulder after a clean challenge from Colleen Flanagan.
Mathes and Slinkard calmly appealed to the head referee as captains for a foul or card once Flanagan was sternly spilled in a possible moment of retaliation just before time expired.
Mineral Area stayed aggressive out of the intermission, and generated an immediate scoring chance as Ella Cosentino sent a diagonal pass ahead for Buerck before multiple defenders converged.
Slinkard and Cosentino nearly connected with headers on ensuing crosses, and Hannah Miller fired wide from farther distance before the Cardinals eventually broke through.
SFCC was mostly outplayed in terms of possession and field position during the first half, but managed a couple of solid rushes that forced Mineral Area defenders to retreat.
Trevizo fired wide of the opposite post as Anna Gremaud sprinted back. A creative return feed from Adamaris Ramirez to Mariela Rodriquez yielded a subsequent shot that Ashleigh Lawson blocked.
Cosentino chipped high for MAC during the 16th minute after Gant intercepted a failed clearing attempt and pivoted near the edge of the box.
The Cardinals have outscored their last three opponents by a combined 13-0 margin.