HELENA – East side rules.
For the fourth straight year, the Eastern all-stars claimed victory at the Shodair Soccer Classic on Saturday afternoon. Two hours later it was a sweep as the Eastern men also posted a victory, their fourth straight in the series as well.
The 17th edition of the annual soccer classic was once again held at Nelson Stadium on the campus of Carroll College. The East women shut out the West 3-0, while the East men hung on for a 2-1 victory to cap the day.
While the crowd was sparse and storm clouds blew over the pitch at times, the women were thrilled to have the opportunity to compete in the match. Among them was Great Falls CMR’s Emerson McLaughlin, who helped the Rustlers win their first-ever state Class AA championship in 2014.
"It was awesome. Just the atmosphere and all the people that came," said McLaughlin. "High school is so much fun, and we don't get a lot of supporters at home. We get the important ones obviously, but soccer's just not huge yet in Montana yet. But seeing all these people here was so fun playing in front of them."
McLaughlin capped the scoring for the East with a goal 53rd minute, finding the back of the next just seconds after teammate Sydney Rollison, of Bozeman, had blasted a shot off the crossbar. That sealed an MVP performance for the standout forward, who also received a $1,000 scholarship for being named MVP.
"It's crazy. They were talking to us over there and I just started crying. I don't ever cry like happiness, but that's the first time I think I've ever cried happiness before," said McLaughlin. "It's the most amazing feeling that I've ever felt beside the state championship. That was pretty good too, but this tied."
Belgrade’s lone representative in the match was Kindall Bethke, who saw action in both the midfield and on defense. While happy with the victory, it was a bittersweet finish for the All-State performer.
"It's obviously good because we won. It was good to end on a win," said Bethke, who has signed to play college softball at Black Hills State University in South Dakota beginning this fall. "But I love soccer. I couldn't decide between softball and soccer. So it's sad to think that this is my last game, but maybe I'll pick up a game here and there."
Bethke helped anchor the defense during her stints along the back row. She also had a shot on goal while playing in the midfield during the first half.
While she admitted to be a little winded after having not played in a match since last fall, Bethke noted the East’s chemistry made up for any hiccups.
"Our team flowed pretty well together. We had some miscommunications here and there, but what do you expect," she said. "We connected really well for just meeting three days ago, and I played against most of these girls but never with them. So it was really awesome to connect on that level and have good chemistry as a team."
Both teams had a couple of good looks offensively, but it appeared that the first half would end a scoreless tie. Then Billings Central’s Julianna Arellano tapped in an easy goal with less than two minutes remaining after West keeper Aryn Cummings, from Helena Capital, batted down a long shot from McLaughlin that landed near her feet.
The East stretched the lead to 2-0 just 39 seconds into the second half when Rollison scored off an assist from Billings West’s Lauren Cornwall.
While a comfortable lead, McLaughlin noted it was a dangerous lead as well. Thus, she sealed the victory 12 minutes later on an unassisted effort.
"We always say that 2-0 is a really dangerous lead because if the other team does score they're like, 'Oh we're still in it.' And they get super excited," said McLaughlin. "So we wanted to come out super strong and get a bunch of goals right away."
The West was never really able to generate much of an offensive attack following an early surge, and East keeper Evelyn Tiplady, of Stevensville, helped maintain the shut out with a handful of key saves.
"We have a bunch of good players and we knew that we were going to be strong, but West came out so strong," said McLaughlin. "I don't want to sound rude at all when I say this, but they came out stronger than we thought they would. It was a really good game. They put up a good fight."
In addition to Saturday’s match, players hosted a free soccer clinic for youth on Friday and also visited the Shodair Children’s Hospital in Helena. The non-profit facility provides treatment for children suffering from illnesses, diseases, defects and other physical and mental (and emotional) abnormalities in the state of Montana as well as other states.
“The children’s hospital was definitely pretty fun. Getting to see all the kids and just getting your eyes opened to what type of problems there really are,” said Bethke. “And then we had spare time. Just getting to know some of the girls and going off campus with them and getting ice cream or frozen yogurt that was definitely a lot of fun getting to know them more on a personal level rather than just as an athlete.”