It was a match they could not afford to lose. And, as the clock ticked under two minutes Tuesday evening in Livingston, it wasn’t looking good.
Down a goal, Belgrade needed at least a tie to keep its hopes of winning the Eastern A crown alive, and Josiah Russell saved the day. The senior scored with about 30 seconds remaining as the Panthers earned a 2-2 draw against Park County.
A victory Saturday at Billings Central will secure a second straight conference title as well as home playoff match.
“Our fate is in our own hands,” longtime Belgrade coach Ric Plante said. “We take care of business on Saturday, which we hope to, then we have the conference.”
Plante added that he felt fortunate his team escaped with a tie. Morgan Rosberg had given the Rangers a 2-1 lead with a tally in the 53rd minute, and Park was in control of the match.
“I’m not over emphasizing. You can ask any of the players, anyone who was watching the game, Park High deserved to win that game. We were very fortunate to come away with a tie, which is good for us. Keeps our fate in our own hands,” said Plante. “We’re not going to sugar coat it or anything. They out-played us; they were the better team today.”
Park (7-1-3, 2-0-3) took a 1-0 lead midway through the first half on a goal by Charlier Kirn. Kanon Tebo notched the equalizer in the 50th minute, and then assisted on Russell’s goal.
With a victory Saturday, Belgrade (7-1-3, 3-0-2) would host a quarterfinal playoff match and then a semifinal match with a subsequent victory.
“If we come in second then we have to go up to Whitefish and I think Whitefish is undefeated on the year,” said Plante. “They beat us earlier. It’s important that we win Saturday to win the conference and to host a playoff game.”
Belgrade, the two-time defending State A champion, beat Whitefish in last year’s state title match. But the Bulldogs (11-0-0) posted a 4-1 victory in August.
Brayton, Turner lead Panthers past Park
Dalani Brayton and Mackenzie Turner each scored a pair of goals Tuesday as Belgrade not only beat Park County 5-1, but clinched a postseason berth as well.
Brayton scored in the 4th and 38th minutes to help the Panthers take a 3-0 lead into halftime, and then Turner sealed the win with goals in the 67th and 72nd minutes. Sarah Marshall had the team’s other goal, scoring unassisted in the 17th minute.
Belgrade (8-2-1, 2-2-1) can now finish no lower than the third seed in the Eastern A. It’s unlikely the team will move up to the second seed, meaning they won’t host a match in the postseason.
“I’m really excited. I think we’ve had a great season. We have a super challenging conference,” Panthers coach Celine Valentin said. “I think our conference record doesn’t really reflect the talent of this team. I’m really excited for them to have a chance to prove themselves in the postseason.”
Belgrade had shut out Park 7-0 a little over a week ago, but Valentin noted Tuesday’s performance was even better. The Panthers outshot Park 21-6 and dominated the match.
“Interestingly, we didn’t have a better scoreline than the last time we played them, but we played a lot better,” said Valentin. “So I’m actually very happy with the result. Our attack was very diverse and creative. Probably the most it’s been all year.”
Belgrade 2, Park 2
Belgrade 0 2 - 2
Park 1 1 - 2
Park - Charlie Kirn (unasssted), 19th
Bel - Kanon Tebo (Josiah Russell), 50th
Park - Morgan Rosberg (unassisted), 53rd
Bel - Russell (Tebo), 79th
Shots: Bel 18, Park 10. CK: Bel 6, Park 2. Fouls: Bel 9, Park 10. Saves: 2 (Luke Turner), Park 5 (Declan Goff).
Belgrade 5, Park 1
Belgrade 3 2 - 5
Park 0 1 - 1
Bel - Dalani Brayton (Meliena Ratz), 4th
Bel - Sarah Marshall (unassisted), 17th
Bel - Brayton (Marshall), 38th
Park - Kodie Vondra (unassited), 48th
Bel - Mackenzie Turner (Mariah Morgan), 67th
Bel - Turner (unassisted), 72nd
Shots: Bel 21, Park 6. CK: Bel 5, Park 0. Fouls: Bel 9, Park 2. Saves: Bel 1 (Abbey Cady), Park 8.