ALEXANDRIA -- The quest to become Section 8A’s first-ever four-peat champion is almost complete for the Bemidji High School girls soccer team.
BHS made the latest step to the throne Wednesday night in Alexandria after 100 back-and-forth minutes, eight rounds of hold-your-breath penalty kicks and one unfriendly post that launched the Lumberjacks back into the section title game.
“It was a bunch of ups and downs,” said Bemidji keeper Kiera Nelson, who starred over regulation and extra time and then stood tall during penalty kicks. “But the girls rallied behind me. We stayed strong in our faith. Really, all glory to God. He’s the star of the show.”
With the North subsection crown up for grabs, the fourth-seeded Jacks and second-seeded Cardinals played to an even 1-1 draw over 80 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of sudden-death extra time. Finally, after eight rounds of PKs, BHS outlasted Alexandria by a 6-5 margin behind a keeper who didn’t falter.
“She’s one player we never have to worry about mental toughness with,” Bemidji head coach Logan Larsen said of Nelson. “Even though it’s her first year and she’s a sophomore, she’s an extremely confident person. She knows how to compose herself. Her whole team loves her, not just because of that, but everything she brings to practice with her attitude. It was great to see her be rewarded for all her efforts.”
Peyton Oelrich netted the opening goal in the 11th minute, scoring off a great ball from Emma Wright that put Bemidji (9-3-2) in front. The lead held for the next 55 minutes, but Ella Westlund produced the equalizer in the final 15 minutes on a deflected ball that snuck under Nelson’s diving arms.
Even though the Cardinals (8-2-3) dominated the overtime period, nobody connected before penalty kicks brought a suspenseful finish to a fantastic match.
Alexandria keeper Sophia Vinje saved the opening shot and then watched the Jacks’ second attempt strike the crossbar. But Nelson saved the second shot against her, keeping BHS within 2-1 through two rounds.
The difference held at one after four rounds, but then Morgan Jones stepped up with a chance to deliver the winner for the Cards. Nelson stood on her line, needing a save to keep the season alive. And her confidence never waivered.
“I knew I had to get it, otherwise it was over,” Nelson said. “I thought I could get it. I really had strong faith that it wasn’t going in.”
Nelson dove to her right, met the low ball and preserved the match with a do-or-die save.
Kiera Nelson with a season-saver. Wow!!! pic.twitter.com/HPB0bRcpeM— Micah Friez (@micahfriez) October 22, 2020
“It’s gut-wrenching,” Larsen said of watching on. “You’re completely out of control. We talk to our players about composing ourselves. … They did that.”
Addy Kelly and Kate Martin respectively scored in rounds 6 and 7 for Bemidji, but Alexandria matched them to continue on. In the eighth round, however, Rosie Laitala buried her chance while Ellen Panther struck the right post.
And the celebration was on for the Lumberjacks.
FULL TIME: Bemidji 2, Alexandria 1 (6-5 on PKs).— Micah Friez (@micahfriez) October 22, 2020
Rosie Laitala converts in the eighth round and Ellen Panther goes off the post. What an incredible match. The Lumberjacks are section championship bound. pic.twitter.com/PcORUlMm1s
“It’s indescribable to have such a great group of ladies with me. Lots of happy tears, but I was overjoyed,” Nelson said. “To be able to be in that situation is obviously tough. It’s hard mentally. But the shooters did great for me. I wanted to win it for them.”
Emma Neubeck, Oelrich and Sophie Morin booted penalty kick goals for BHS in rounds three through five. Nelson made saves in the second and fifth rounds and watched the final kick of the night fire wide.
Bemidji advances to the program’s fourth consecutive Section 8A championship game. The Jacks will face South No. 1 seed Sartell-St. Stephen, who beat BHS 2-0 during the regular season.
Due to weather, the game has been moved to a 3:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday, Oct. 24, back in Alexandria.
“We really want to keep our legacy going,” Nelson said. “As a team, we play for each other. We really want to win for each other.”
No. 4 Bemidji 1, No. 2 Alexandria 1
BHS 1 0 0 0 -- 1
ALX 0 1 0 0 -- 1
First half -- 1, BHS GOAL, Oelrich (Wright) 11’.
Second half -- 2, ALX GOAL, Westlund (Randazzo), 66’.
First overtime -- No scoring.
Second overtime -- No scoring.
Saves -- Nelson (BHS) 4; Vinje (ALX) 6.