This can’t be happening again. Not to this team.
Those are the thoughts that had to be circling the minds of a distraught and crestfallen Montesano Bulldogs girls soccer team after being shutout in another state semifinal game for the third-consecutive season.
What could have only added to the pain in the moments just after suffering a 1-0 defeat on Friday to a Seattle Academy team Monte bested in a penalty-kick shootout earlier in the season was the Bulldogs outplayed the Cardinals in so many facets of the game.
The Bulldogs got the better of the scoring chances that included a potential game-tying penalty kick from standout forward Mikayla Stanfield that was saved late in the second half.
After going 0-4 in the Final Four with just one goal over the previous two seasons, Friday’s semifinal was by far the best effort any Bulldogs team had put forth on the season’s final weekend.
And still, it ended with another shutout defeat.
It had to have seemed like Monte was about to travel down the same road it had travelled down its previous two Final Four appearances: Lose both games and go home with a fourth-place trophy.
Thanks for playing.
Entering the state’s third/fourth-place game on Saturday afternoon, fortune didn’t favor Montesano as the Bulldogs faced a familiar foe in the La Center Wildcats, a team that had easily dispatched the Bulldogs 3-0 in the district-championship game exactly two weeks earlier, with Monte looking outclassed against a superior opponent.
But there was something different about Montesano in this season’s Final Four. This year, the Bulldogs were not just spectators. They came not only to play, but to win.
“It’s definitely just a mindset and just coming together as a team and deciding that we’re not going to give up, we’re not going to let down just because we’re not in the championship game. We’re going to get farther than we did last year, no matter what that takes,” said Stanfield, a senior all-state forward and team co-captain. “And that was our mindset and we came together as a team and that’s what we accomplished.”
Montesano’s rousing 3-1 history-making victory over La Center earned the Bulldogs program its first state trophy that didn’t have a “Fourth Place” engraved on it.
“We’ve come the last couple years and we kept getting fourth and we really wanted more. The last couple of years it felt like we here and we were really excited about that. But now, we know that we wanted more and we were ready,” Monte senior midfielder and 1A Evergreen League Offensive Player of the Year Bethanie Henderson said. “We just fought so hard. I’m just so proud of all the girls. Even last night (against Seattle Academy), everyone was battling so hard and I’m so proud of each and every one of them. I love them so much.”
For a Monte team that had lost its two previous state third-place games by a combined score of 8-0, history was not on its side entering Saturday’s season finale. But head coach Fidel Sanchez knew just what to say to get through to his players.
“I told them at breakfast this morning, ‘Soccer gives you heartbreak, but it also gives you a lot of joy, a lot of reason to celebrate,’” he said. “It’s how you learn to love the game and play the game for the right reasons. … It was a battle of will and determination and making sure we dusted ourselves off and go at it again.”
So that’s what the Bulldogs did. Monte continued to play with the same aggression, urgency and intensity against La Center it showed the previous evening when facing Seattle Academy.
And it was evident early on that Saturday’s game would look nothing like Monte’s district-title loss earlier in the month as the Bulldogs quickly took it to the Wildcats.
With just over 11 minutes left in the first half, Montesano freshman forward Jaelyn Butterfield trailed teammate Adda Potts – who was streaking down the left hashmark with the ball – and made a run to space between two La Center defenders.
Potts sent a short cross to her right, where the speedy Butterfield stuck out her right foot for a goal and the first lead Montesano has ever had in a Final Four game, a lead it would take into halftime.
Another one of Montesano’s talented young athletes – sophomore midfielder Alexa Stanfield – made her presence known not once, but twice. The younger of the two Stanfield sisters on the team found herself loitering by the La Center back post, unchecked, for two key goals in the span of a four minutes to put Monte up 3-0 in the second half.
An eye-catching goal off a laser of a shot by Wildcats senior all-state standout Shaela Bradley cut the lead to 3-1 with seven minutes left to go.
The Wildcats charged back down and nearly cut it to 3-2 if not for Monte senior all-state goal keeper Riley Timmons, who preserved the victory with four key saves down the stretch.
The referee blew his whistle ending the match, and the Montesano players and bench made a beeline toward Timmons in goal to celebrate the victory.
Sanchez said one of the key differences in how Monte was able to handle the Wildcats this time around was the defensive strategy against Bradley.
“We had a different game plan for Shaela Bradley and we shut her down for 75 minutes of the game until she got loose and got one. Other than that, it was our game,” he said. “We put Adda Potts on (Bradley), one of our most athletic girls on the team. We know Potts can run with the best of them and that was our plan. Just let (Bradley) know someone is there so she has to think about you and be in the play all at the same time, and that was hard for her to rattle that off. … (Bradley) is ‘it.’ So we said, ‘Let’s take her out of the game somehow. If we can control her and isolate her from the rest of her team, we’re going to have a great chance.’ And we did.”
Potts said after connecting with Butterfield on the first goal of the game, she had a feeling victory was on the horizon.
“After the first goal I knew that we got this,” the junior forward/midfielder said. “We really turned it on and did not stop.”
Another key to Monte’s Final Four success was a brutal schedule throughout the season that meant the Bulldogs were the only team in the Final Four to have played all three teams.
“We played them before and kind of knew how they played, they like to go through (Bradley),” said Henderson, who added the familiarity with their opponents was a tactical advantage. “It really helped because we kind of knew what to expect and were not going into it blind. Going into the semis you don’t know who you are going to play the next day, but it really helped that we had already played all these teams so we kind of just knew how they played and who they liked to play through.”
While there are so many things that can be said about Monte’s victory – its relevance to school history, its redemption story-arc after previous disappointing outcomes – this was a win that the Bulldogs had to earn by persevering through the physical and mental pain of playing less than 24 hours after its toughest loss of the season.
It was a victory they had to fight for and earn, and they had to earn it together.
“We really wanted to prove ourselves and show that we could hang with the top four teams. I think we definitely showed that this year,” Henderson said. “Just finishing with a win and knowing we didn’t go out with a loss, as a senior, that really means a lot to me. The chemistry is great with all the girls, we really work great together and I’m just so thankful for that.”
“I think that our team has something that other teams don’t have. We’re all really close, even outside of soccer,” said Timmons. “We have a bond that no other team has, and I think that is what’s really special about our team and Monte teams in general.”
“I think just all of us playing together and making history in Monte, it’s such a big accomplishment and we are all just so proud,” Potts said. “I love them so much. We did such a good job and I’m so proud of everyone.”
After watching his team hoist the state third-place trophy for the first time in school history, Sanchez was reminded of a phrase his former athletic director Brian Graham said to him once while coaching at Hoquiam High School.
“‘You’re only as good as your last game,’” Sanchez said of what Graham told him. “I took that to heart. You’re only good as your last game and today, we won, so we’re pretty good.”