For the second straight season, and fourth time in five years, Belgrade has won the Eastern A championship.
Led by a pair of goals from Josiah Russell, the Panthers shut out Billings Central, 3-0, to wrap up the regular season Saturday afternoon. The victory secured the league title as well as a home quarterfinal playoff match next week.
“Being able to host a quarterfinal game is a big deal for us,” longtime Belgrade coach Ric Plante said. “That was our goal going into today’s game and the kids accomplished it.”
Belgrade (8-1-3, 4-0-2), the two-time defending state champion, will host Hamilton, the No. 3 seed out of the South. The team’s battled to a 1-1 draw in the season opener on Aug 24.
With a victory against Hamilton, the Panthers would host in the semifinal round as well. And, with another victory and depending on what happens on the other side of the bracket, they could host championship match, too, on Oct. 27.
“Obviously we always like to play at home,” said Plante. “We think it’s a big advantage, our field, the quality of our field. We have great fans, we have great school support.”
While the Panthers return to the Class A playoffs for a seventh straight season, Plante noted his team needs to continue to improve in the postseason.
“We still have a lot of work to do if we’re going to make another run for a state title,” he said. “We’re not where we want to be yet, but we got a week of training and three weeks to get there.”
Belgrade got off to a sluggish start, but settled into a groove after Russell scored in the 11th minute. Christian Aitchison added a goal in 21st minute and then Russell closed out the scoring in the 47th.
“The kids actually put a lot of pressure on themselves and we did not play very well the first 10 minutes,” said Plante. “Then we started to settled in and started to play much better and controlled most of the game after that. Billings Central had a couple chances during the game, but again the nerves got to us a little bit for the first 10 minutes.”
The Panthers outshot Central 19-7, while keeper Luke Turner earned his 15th career shut out in goal. Nicolas Buendia, Tyler Monlux and Kanon Tebo each had an assist.
Cade's late goal salvages tie
Hayden Cade scored a pair of second half goals Saturday morning, including one in the 76th minute, as Belgrade rallied for a league draw.
The Panthers blew a one goal lead and trailed 3-2 with five minutes remaining before Cade’s second tally salvaged a 3-3 Eastern A tie against Billings Central.
It was a confidence boosting comeback for Belgrade, which has not beaten the Rams since 2011, to wrap up the regular season.
“It was probably the best team performances we’ve had yet this season,” Panthers coach Celine Valentin said. “Really happy with the result. Finishing 3-3 just shows a lot of mental toughness and confidence in this group. They’re peaking mentally at the right time.”
Central (10-1-1, 4-1-1), which is last year’s State A runner up, clinched the conference title with the tie and will host a first round playoff match.
Defending state champion Laurel is the No. 2 seed, while the Panthers finished as the No. 3 seed. Belgrade will travel throughout the postseason beginning Saturday at Missoula Loyola.
“It’s not something we’re unfamiliar with. Two years ago was the same situation,” said Valentin. “Sometimes I feel like playing at home puts a lot of pressure on these kids. Our away record for conference games was better than our home record, so I’m not concerned and I think the team is able to play their best wherever we’re at.”
Belgrade (8-2-2, 2-2-2) competed without a pair of starters, including leading scorer Mariah Morgan, and was short on subs. But freshman Mackenzie Turner scored her fourth goal in three matches in the 19th minute to answer a goal by the Rams’ Chole Paharik as the teams battled to a 1-1 tie at intermission.
“She’s been on fire these last couple weeks. It’s been great,” said Valentin. “Every time she’s gone in she’s scoring goals it seems like, so we’re gonna keep going with whoever’s playing really well. For a player who trains half the time as a keeper, she’s really transitioning well.”
Cade gave the Panthers a 2-1 lead in the 45th minute, but Central regained the lead on goals by Zoie Althoff and Morgan Ferestad in the 66th and 74th minutes, respectively.
“Billings scored with not a lot of time left to go up 3-2. And the team just said, ‘Let’s go get a goal,’” said Valentin. “They never felt down about themselves and felt defeated. Let’s go get one. Down to business and then they went and scored one. It was fun to watch.”
Belgrade 3, Billings Central 0
Belgrade 2 1 - 3
Central 0 0 - 0
Bel - Josiah Russell (Kanon Tebo), 11th
Bel - Christian Aitchison (Tyler Monlux), 21st
Bel - Russell (Nicolas Buendia), 47th
Shots: Bel 19, BC 7. CK: Bel 2, BC 3. Fouls: Bel 8, BC 13. Saves: Bel 1 (Luke Turner), BC 6 (Michael Horrell).
Belgrade 3, Billings Central 3
Belgrade 1 2 - 3
Central 1 2 - 3
BC - Chloe Paharik (Zoie Althoff), 18th
Bel - Mackenzie Turner (unassisted), 19th
Bel - Hayden Cade (unassisted), 45th
BC - Althoff (unassited), 66th
BC - Morgan Ferestad (Alivia Powers), 74th
Bel - Cade (Ruby Gawarkiewicz), 76th
Shots: Bel 5, BC 13. CK: Bel 2, BC 3. Fouls: Bel 3, BC 1. Saves: Bel 8 (Abbey Cady), BC 3 (Maggie Lyle).