BILLINGS — The Laurel Locomotives girls soccer team advanced to the Class A state championship match for the seventh consecutive season by beating Columbia Falls 5-1 in Columbia Falls on Saturday afternoon.
Laurel, though, will see a new face when it hosts the title match next Saturday.
Whitefish, playing at home, defeated Billings Central 1-0 in the other semifinal, ending a streak of five straight years in which the Locomotives and Rams have played for the title.
Instead, it’s the Locomotives (9-0-1) and Bulldogs (11-0-1), who are making their first championship appearance since losing to Billings Central in 2013.
“We're going to do a recon, but it's definitely a feather in the cap, and you have to be happy,” Whitefish coach Roland Benedict told 406mtsports.com. “But we've always talked about this season is just taking one game at a time, and we wanted to win the conference, and we want to want to win a state title.
“We’ve got one more game, the goal is just give yourselves a chance. It's one game and you give yourself a chance to win a state title. And that's what we're going to try and do.”
For Laurel, it’ll be the first championship game on its home field since the Locomotives lost to Columbia Falls in 2004. They are the current title holders and have won two of the last three. The previous five title matches between Laurel and Central have been played on the Rams’ home field.
“We’re excited to finally, after all these years, bring the championship game home to our stadium,” Laurel coach Aloma Jess told 406mtsports.com before she knew the outcome of the day’s second semifinal. “It’s been one of our goals for years so we’re very excited to do that.”
Laurel 5, Columbia Falls 1
Though the sun was shining, the match was played in 20-degree temperatures with “a decent side wind blowing in from the mountains,” Jess said.
She added that the final scoreline was a bit deceiving.
“It was a battle,” she said. “We earned every single goal. Even though we seemed to possess the ball most of the time and our girls did a good job of moving the ball side to side looking for openings, Columbia Falls was always right there to try to shut us down.”
Maddie Robison got Columbia Falls off to a good start when she scored in the third minute on a direct kick following a hand-ball call on the Locomotives.
But Mya Maack answered two minutes later — the first of her two goals — and Maeson Cotter scored the tie-breaking goal in the 15th minute on an assist from Maack.
That’s where the score stood until halftime, and the Locomotives were able to pad their lead on goals from Maack, sister Morgan Maack and Allison Shovar. Alyse Aby assisted on Shovar’s goal, but the others were unassisted.
“We had to tighten up our bootstraps a little bit, but the girls didn’t panic,” Jess said about the early deficit. “They got in there and they grinded it out and finished strong.”
Columbia Falls, which had two players in quarantine for coronavirus contact tracing and was missing three starters overall, finished the season 10-3-0.
“I'm incredibly proud of the way that that our group has continually overcome adversity,” Columbia Falls coach Thomas Clark said. “And, you know, in spite of everything that all kids are dealing with right now, just to get into a semifinal, to battle to this point, there's something to be said about that. And I hope this season is one that they'll never forget.”
Whitefish 1, Billings Central 0
The low score was hardly surprising, considering two of the better defensive teams in the state went at it in cold, windy conditions. Crews began clearing the field with snowblowers at 6 a.m.
Billings Central (7-2-2) entered the semifinals tied with Laurel in allowing the fewest goals, just four. Whitefish had allowed eight.
“They always defend really, really well. I knew it wasn’t going to be one our blowout victories,” said Billings Central coach Nolan Trafton, whose team averaged a state-best 7.7 goals per match. “And, of course, the wind as well really affected that one.”
The teams were scoreless at halftime before the Bulldogs finally broke through. Adrienne Healy poked the ball in during a scrum in front of the Central goal for the 1-0 lead.
“I didn't even celebrate because I thought the refs might call it back because the keeper went down,” Benedict said. “And it was so weird that they might call a foul on us. But the refs looked, the (assistant referee) was there, he was in a good position, actually. Sometimes they struggle to keep up with the play, because it's just so dynamic ... But no, they were in good spots. It was a clean play.”
Trafton, though, wasn’t too happy the goal was allowed.
“Our keeper had the ball in her hands and they ran into her,” he said. “(The official) let it stand. It’s a tough one to swallow.”
The Rams were assessed a red card early in the second half, leaving them to go the remainder of the match a player down.
The Bulldogs hung on, and will make the trip to Laurel next Saturday.
“Almost every year we end up running into (Billings Central) or Laurel, and we can't get over the hump,” Benedict said. “And so, you know, we've been building toward that, and we've been building the program with players and the right group of gals to get it done.
“It's a big deal for the state. I think it's the last (five) years that it's been Billings and Laurel every year in the state final. So it's a big deal for the state that somebody's kind of upset the equilibrium of soccer.”
The Missoulian's Jordan Hansen contributed to this report.