The championship run came to a sudden and devastating end Saturday afternoon for Belgrade.
The two-time defending state Class A champions were shut out for the first time this season, and the first time since 2013, in a 1-0 state semifinal loss to Polson at the Belgrade Youth Sports Complex.
It halted a seven-match playoff win streak, a streak of four straight appearances in the finals and a bid to become the first boys program in any class to reach five consecutive championship matches.
“That’s a pretty good run,” longtime Panthers coach Ric Plante said. “But all runs have to end.”
Polson (11-1-0), which advanced to the final for the first time since 2011, broke a scoreless tie in the 62nd minute on a counter attack. Robin Erickson managed to get around Panther defender Sam Stewart and then slipped a shot past keeper Luke Turner.
“They got some big strong kids up front and they just go at you really fast. He got on the outside of Sam a little bit and got a shot off that looked like it just went under Luke’s kind of sliding foot and arm,” said Plante. “So good shot for them.”
It was the lone shot that Turner, who is the Montana High School Association’s career shut out leader, allowed. The senior made several key stops throughout the match to keep Belgrade in the hunt, and it appeared his hard work paid off late in the match.
The Panthers’ Josiah Russell was fouled by Bridger Wenzel in the box in the 76th minute and the call resulted in a penalty kick. But Nathan Haycock was wide left on the ensuing shot.
“We’ve been working on shoot outs for two weeks just preparing if any game goes overtime that we’re ready. He shot the ball really well,” said Plante. “One thing at practice that you can not duplicate is the pressure that he was under right there. I don’t care what you say, what you do as a coach, you can’t replicate that. So a lot of pressure on Nathan and unfortunately he missed the goal.
“But it doesn’t come down to one person, one play, one kick. There was 80 minutes of just a battle going both ways, and their keeper did a nice job today.”
Kaden Nelson, a freshmen, finished with 10 saves. That includes a stop on a direct kick by Kanon Tebo shortly after the Pirates had taken the lead.
Belgrade was unable to get off another dangerous shot following the penalty kick, and it was a solemn end to a tremendous four-year run.
“The seniors, they’ve never felt this. So it’s new and no one’s taking it very well because we’re in a position that we’re not used to,” said Plante. “But my hat’s off to Polson and their coaching staff and their players. I think they’ll do well in the final.”
No team has won more matches over the past six years than Belgrade (9-2-3) nor competed in more postseason matches. The run included six straight appearances in the semifinals or beyond and four conference championships.
“I don’t think any coach would guess or predict or even hope that that happens. So the fact that we’re here, that we’ve been here for so many years, I still can’t really digest it. I got to think about it,” said Plante. “This is my last year here — if you would have told me, ‘Ric, you’re going to be in the semis six years in a row,’ I would have bet my house. No way, that just doesn’t happen.”
The contest served as the final for Plante, who plans to step down as coach after 15 seasons the helm.
“Maybe I’ll go fishing next Saturday instead of play in the final,” Plante joked. “Dang it. I’d much rather have one more game.”
Polson 1, Belgrade 0
Polson 0 1 - 1
Belgrade 0 0 - 0
Pol - Robin Erickson (Mack Moderie), 62nd
Shots: Pol 8, Bel 15. CK: Pol 7, Bel 6. Fouls: Pol 8, Bel 4. Saves: Pol 10 (Kaden Nelson), Bel 6 (Luke Turner). Yellow cards: Pol (Zevam Walker, Bridger Wenzel).