Heading into the program’s inaugural season in Class AA, Carl Bridwell really wasn’t sure what to expect.
He had enjoyed plenty of success as an assistant coach over the past four years before taking over the helm this fall at Belgrade. But that was in Class A, and Bridwell didn’t want to set his team up for failure in AA.
Thus, few goals were set entering this season.
The Panthers won a pair of matches, tied three others, and lost three by just one goal. That includes Tuesday’s first round match against Billings West at Amend Park.
“Before the season, going into double A, we had no expectations. I was expecting a higher level of soccer and I think we saw that a few times with (Billings) Skyview and Bozeman, and I’m assuming some other teams in the west,” said Bridwell. “But for the most part, there were some of the (same) things we saw in single A. Very direct kicking the ball and running, and that’s what West played today.”
West (7-3-3), the No. 3 seed from the Eastern AA, scored in the 5th minute and then withstood plenty of offensive chances by Belgrade in a 1-0 victory. Sophie Sievertsen scored the lone goal after knocking in a shot off the left post from inside the box.
“They got an early goal off of the bar and then from there on out their strategy was to see what their fastest girl could do and how far their centerback could kick it,” said Bridwell. “It’s frustrating because we played a better team game and we had our opportunities and chances. We just couldn’t put it in the net.”
Belgrade (2-8-3), the No. 6 seed, had given up early goals in several matches and managed to bounce back. Bridwell noted his team settled in after the score, passed well, and had good opportunities on corner kicks, but it didn’t translate into a goal.
The Panthers finished with 11 shots and five corner kicks, and keeper McKenzie Turner tallied 12 saves.
“We threw everything we could (at them) in the last 10 minutes, but they were very good and kicking the ball and running,” said Bridwell. “Unfortunately it was an individual performance by one (team) and team performance by us, and we just couldn’t finish it off.”
Despite the loss, it was a successful first campaign in AA for the Panthers. Now players know what to expect and Bridwell noted the offseason work that will need to be taken in preparation for the 2020 season.
“For next year, I think our biggest thing is going to be the fitness for our whole team (from) Day 1 whereas in prior seasons in single A we could have time in non-conference games to be a little out of shape and work into it and warm up to the season and conference play. We can’t do that in double A,” he said. “So that’s kind of going to be our main goal. We’re going to do some winter indoor sessions and hopefully some spring soccer … I’m very confident about what this team can do taking steps after its first season in double A.”
Boys score a goal, but lose to Billings Senior
Jeff DeBuse established his standard for success early.
Before his first season as Belgrade’s head coach, he told his players he could tell if he was doing his job based on their performance and character.
“I felt like we were able to check both of those boxes,” DeBuse said.
Belgrade’s first season in Class AA finished on Tuesday as East No. 2-seeded Billings Senior defeated the No. 7 Panthers 7-1 in the first round of the state playoffs in Billings.
The Panthers (0-13) played Senior less than two weeks ago. DeBuse said Belgrade’s plan was to simply build on the improvements its made in recent weeks, including on its new formation the Panthers have played with the last few games in order to move the ball more effectively.
Belgrade’s lone goal was on a header from Christian Aitchison on a Nate Haycock assist midway through the first half.
“It was just tough today. They were a really good team, and we knew that coming in and it just didn’t go our way,” DeBuse said. “I thought we played well at times, but they were just a better team.”
The Panthers struggled at times as they adapted to Class AA. But DeBuse said they learned plenty throughout the season.
The coach, however, said he’ll remember his team most for how fun practices were and the mentality his players brought.
“I’m really happy with the group of guys I got to work with,” DeBuse said. “I’m super proud of the work they put in this year. We were playing a good style of soccer.”
DeBuse said this year’s senior captains, Haycock, Sean Smith and EJ Dewell, were the “heart and soul of the team.”
With their help, DeBuse added, the Panthers established a style of play they want to continue next season. Now with experience at a new level, he hopes the program only improves.
“We win or we learn,” DeBuse said. “I’m really proud to move into the future with the knowledge we’ve gained and try and move the program up every year.”
— Story by Colton Pool, Bozeman Daily Chronicle Sports Editor
Billings West 1, Belgrade 0
Belgrade 0 0 - 0
West 1 0 - 1
BW - Sophie Sievertsen (Maddie Manguia), 5th
Shots: Bel 11, BW 19. CK: Bel 5, BW 8. Fouls: Bel 5, BW 6. Saves: Bel 12 (McKenzie Turner), BW 6 (Kendell Ellis).
Billings Senior 7, Belgrade 1
Belgrade 1 0 - 1
Senior 5 2 - 7
BS - Rendan Klein (Sam Geroge)
BS - George (unassisted),
BS - George (Seth Ambrosia)
Bel - Christian Aitchison (Nathan Haycock)
BS - George (Dax Wilson)
BS - Wilson (Trey Draayer)
BS - Wilson (unassisted)
BS - Wilson (Ambrosia)