HAMILTON — Hamilton's defense had been impeccable all season long, and it was Saturday, too, in a Class A girls' state semifinal soccer game against Laurel.
The Broncs just needed a bit more offense.
Laurel's lone goal off the foot of Aspen Cotter in the first half held up for 55-plus minutes in a 1-0 win that sent the Locomotives back to the state title game for the fourth straight season. For the third year in a row, they'll face Billings Central, which topped Columbia Falls 3-1 in the other semifinal.
"We knew coming in that Hamilton had a very strong defense. We knew we were going to have to keep moving off the ball and keep taking our shots when they were available," Laurel coach Aloma Jess said of the Broncs' backfield, which allowed only eight goals all season — best in the state according to leaguelineup.com/nwmta.
"(We had to) fight the frustration and just take our chances and hope we could get one more in than Hamilton."
That "one more" turned out to be just one, but it worked. The score came 25 minutes into the contest at Hamilton's scenic soccer field, overlooking the snow-capped Bitterroot Mountains.
Laurel tackled the ball free along the west sideline, flush with fans braving temperatures in the low 40s before adding the windchill from the blustery weather.
The Loco's midfielder fired a centering pass that both a Bronc defender and Cotter tried to track down.
It was Cotter who won on the box out. She pirouetted around her marker, letting loose a shot from the top right of the box.
It crossed crease and found the net, just beyond the dive of Hamilton goaltender Maddy Martin.
"I saw the ball coming and I just focused on getting the ball to the left corner," the junior said. "I looked at the corner of the goal and took a shot for it."
The shot was good — it had to be, because Martin was on her game Saturday. Hamilton's junior netminder had 10 saves, none bigger than a shin-guard stop with 12:42 remaining to keep the Broncs' deficit at one.
Cotter came in on a breakaway and again tried for the left corner but the ball bounced off the post. Martin recovered to take the angle on Laurel's leading goal scorer, Morgan Maack. Maack shot but Martin put up a stonewall.
A handball after the ensuing rebound gave Laurel a free kick from the penalty arc. The shot went high, though, and Martin was there had it not.
"Maddy had a fantastic game today, I couldn't ask for a better game from her," Hamilton coach Kiah Nisley said. "She really peaked, so I'm really proud of her performance, she really kept us in it."
From there, the Broncs tried desperately to get a through ball by the Locomotives defense, which was allowed to play physical most of the game. No cards were issued, but the two teams each had a handful of aggressive fouls customary in a big-stage game.
"I got a couple ankles kicked out, but it's okay," said Hamilton captain Tessa Della Silva with an ice pack on her leg. "You just gotta keep your head strong; gotta give it back. If they're giving it to you, you gotta give it back."
The 5-foot-2 senior and her team did just that. The Broncs were gritty and they were resilient — Addie Gordon got some space and a free shot off near stoppage time and Hamilton added a corner-kick try with 4:11 remaining.
But the Broncs couldn't quite break through, making it another all-Eastern representation in the state championship.
"All the other conferences are going to have to have stiffer competition," Nisley said, explaining how the West needs to game plan against teams on the other side of the Divide. "...(The East) battles it out with each other, so they have to know how to fight for games, they have to be scrappy and make goals when they count."
Billings Central has won the last two title meetings against Laurel, and the Rams have won eight state championships since 2008. Laurel, which last won it all in 2014 against Columbia Falls, is the only team that's broken up the Rams' run.
The Locomotives are 0-1-1 against the Rams this season.
"It’s déjà vu, but hopefully with a different outcome this time," Jess said. "If we play out game and we possess the ball like we know we can and should and not get into panic mode, we stand a good chance of beating them.
"We know what they’re all about, we’ve already played them twice."