If they could just have those first 10 minutes back.
La Center’s Shaela Bradley scored two goals within the first 10 minutes of the game and a late Montesano push was held back as the Bulldogs fell to the Wildcats 2-1 in the championship game in the 1A District 4 Tournament on Saturday at King’s Way Christian High School in Vancouver.
La Center’s standout sophomore midfielder cut through the Montesano defense like a knife through butter, winding and weaving her way around Bulldogs players before scoring on a high shot to the right corner of the Monte net in the fourth minute of the game.
Two minutes later, a shell-shocked Bulldogs team watched again as Bradley intercepted the ball in the Wildcats half of the pitch, broke up the left wing and ripped a hard, steep-angle shot from near the Monte back line that was blocked by Monte keeper Riley Timmons but deflected into the net for a quick 2-0 lead.
“That first half was not us. We didn’t get off the bus,” Montesano head coach Fidel Sanchez said, adding he was disapointed that is team didn’t exhibit the proper mindset entering the contest. “In championship games, you have to have a championship mindset, and we didn’t have that championship mindset. We basically showed up and had a blank stare on our faces.”
Still reeling from the early onslaught, Montesano (15-2 overall) nearly fell behind by three goals when Bradley fed a direct free kick laterally to teammate Savannah Dodson, who rocketed a long shot that rang off the crossbar in the eighth minute.
Despite being outplayed for much of the first half, Montesano settled in to hold La Center at just two goals and didn’t allow another shot until there was less than four minutes remaining in the half.
Playing in their own half for the majority of time over the first 40 minutes, Montesano started to see some signs of life late in the first half.
Monte’s first real threat came in the 32nd minute when a forward pass got through the La Center defense toward goal. Montesano senior midfielder/forward Jaiden Morrison gave chase, but La Center keeper Sophia Johnson covered it up before Morrison could get a foot on the ball.
The Bulldogs, which had been held without a shot on goal through the first 35 minutes of the contest, got its first shot on goal when Morrison drilled a liner straight at Johnson, who blocked the shot but let a tantalizing rebound squeak out to her left.
Monte forward Sierra Birdsall rushed to pounce on the opportunity, but La Center midfielder Emma Seter’s slide-tackle just beat Birdsall to the ball, sending it out of harm’s way as the two collided.
After an uncharacteristic first half and with its work cut out for them if they were to defend their district crown, the Bulldogs played the second half with an increased sense of urgency.
Monte spent most of the time in the second half in the La Center half of the field, but scoring chances were few and far between over the first 20 minutes of the half as Wildcats defenders aggressively challenged and pressured the ball.
Morrison earned a slight window of space in the 18-yard box and sent an angled shot just high over the bar in the 60th minute, but it was apparent the scoring chances were starting to turn to Monte’s favor.
The Bulldogs finally broke through in the 71st minute when senior midfielder Paige Lisherness drove a long, arcing direct free kick toward the front of the La Center net. The ball short-hopped then bounced off Johnson, who tried to cover up the rebound. Monte’s leading goal-scorer — midfielder Mikayla Stanfield — was in the right place at the right time, getting her foot on the ball to put the rebound home and give the Bulldogs hope at 2-1.
Monte then pushed numbers forward in an effort to get the equalizer over the final 10-plus minutes of the game.
With just over 5:30 left on the clock, a Stanfield shot rang off the crossbar.
Just over a minute later, Monte had its best chance to tie the game when another long, high-arcing forward ball from Lisherness was mishandled by Johnson. Stanfield was there once again but missed the wide-open net with a shot that went over the net.
The Bulldogs pushed the pace frantically trying to score the equalizer, but ran out time as their reign as district champions ended with the 2-1 loss.
Montesano outshot La Center 9-6 and held a 6-2 advantage on corner kicks, most of those coming in the second half.
Sanchez said he liked the way his team responded in the second half, but told his players to “learn your lesson from this game.”
“I told the ladies, ‘You can’t play like that. If you want to achieve big dreams, you have to think big, and we came here thinking small,’” he said.
Sanchez added that he was “surprised” at the outcome of the first half as the team is familiar with La Center — having defeated the Wildcats in last season’s district semifinal — and was “well prepared” for what they would throw at them.
“Where there is disappointment is right now, with our team. Our program is just not known for that,” he said. “But with that being said, credit to our girls. They did fight and were able to get the one goal and hit the crossbar twice in the last 10 minutes. So you could easily be talking about a 3-2 game.”
The loss will likely drop Monte out of its current No. 3 spot in the WIAA RPI rankings with the loss to No. 6 La Center (13-1-2), and may affect its state playoff seeding once the rankings are set early this coming week.
Sanchez is using the loss as a powerful motivator ahead of the state tournament.
“We have to be mentally ready for these big games, and until they understand what these big games are, this is a good lesson learned for these girls,” he said. “You cannot play 70 minutes of a soccer game and expect to win. You have to play 80 and then some more. We didn’t do that today and because we didn’t do that, we lost. It’s as simple as that.”