BILLINGS – Tess Hansen knows a goalkeeper can put the weight of the world on her shoulders during a penalty-kick shootout. Never mind a shootout to decide a state championship.
So just before Hansen’s Billings Central Rams and the defending Class A champion Laurel Locomotives embarked on just such an occasion Saturday afternoon, Hansen, a center back, walked over to senior classmate Maggie Lyle and spoke a few words.
“No matter what, we’re not going to blame this on you,” Hansen told Lyle, the Rams' keeper.
Turned out Hansen needn’t worry because Lyle seemed the calmest player on the field when it was most crucial. Lyle made two saves in the shootout, and the Rams were successful on their first three attempts to regain the state title with the PK victory over Laurel at Wendy’s Field at Rocky Mountain College.
Lyle was Central’s regular keeper last season, but missed the title match due to injury. So the role she played in the Rams returning to the top was extra special to her.
“This is the first state championship that I’ve gotten to play in in my four years,” said Lyle, who had several key saves in regulation and overtime — as did Laurel’s Mya Hansen — to keep the score 0-0 until the shootout. “And, I mean, I don’t think it could have been any better.”
While Lyle was stopping Laurel’s PK attempts — the Locos also missed their first one — Morgan Ferestad, Zoie Althoff and Annika Varga made their shots in succession. The shootout ended after three of the five rounds because of Central’s 3-0 lead.
“I’m very, very proud of these girls, they gave it their all, even to the bitter end,” said Laurel coach Aloma Jess, whose team was trying to win its third title in the last five seasons. “If we had to lose, then this is probably the best way possible. Nobody gave up, nobody rolled over and let Central score, which I’m very, very proud of.”
Laurel went first in the shootout, and Lyle’s second save put the Rams on notice that one more goal and the championship was theirs. When Varga slipped her shot into the right corner ahead of a diving Hansen, the rest of the Rams ran from midfield to mob Varga and Lyle in the 18-yard box.
The Rams are state champs for the third time in the last four years and they've won nine of the last 11 titles. It was the last match for Rams coach Didier Ndedi, who announced earlier this season that he’s moving to the East coast after spending the last four seasons with the Central girls and the last six with the boys’ program.
“This has been amazing, I can’t explain it,” said Ndedi, who said he and his family are leaving Billings on Wednesday. “There’s really no words for this type of situation. This game I’m going to take with me. This is even better than all the rest I’ve ever had.
“They played wonderful. They played like they never played before. They wanted it so bad that they played amazing football. For us to win it in the PK, we can take it.”
Despite the 0-0 score at the end of overtime, there was plenty of up-and-down action, enough so that many of the players seemed gassed at the end. Center backs usually don’t tire, but Hansen admitted that even she had to put in some extra work in a game where both back lines were stressed.
“I think it’s amazing that both teams came out to fight as hard as they could,” she said. “I’ve never been a part of a game where’s it gone back and forth, back and forth like that. I think that makes this win that much more sweet, even though it went to PKs, because we fought for it.”