Girls take state title

Laurel posts 2-0 win over Billings Central
By: 
David Keyes
Outlook publisher
Photo by LHS managers. Maeson Cotter had a strong game Saturday. Top of page: The teams and referees lined up before the championship game.
Photo by LHS managers. Morgan Maack tries to get past a Central defender in the first half of the championship game.
Photo by David Keyes. The Locomotives raise the state championship trophy to show the great crowd while the emotion of the moment sunk in.

The Laurel Locomotives girls’ soccer team won its second state championship in four years as the Locos defeated arch-rival Central on a picturesque Saturday afternoon.

With the Rims providing the background near the Rocky Mountain College pitch and purple-clad Laurel fans and green-clad Central fans splitting the field, the championship match had all of the makings of an epic affair.

Central came into the game undefeated and riding the most potent offense in the state. Laurel had proven it could win close, low-scoring games as well as enjoy an occasional blowout.

The referee crew reviewed the overtime rules before the game – half expecting penalty kicks to decide the game after overtime.

Laurel flipped the switch.

The Locomotives outhustled, outplayed and outlasted Central to beat Central 2-0 on goals from Kaitlyn Dawes and Aspen Cotter.

Dawes scored in the 4th minute to set the table. It was at that point LHS knew it could win the game and Central realized it could lose. Nobody on Central’s team could remember ever trailing in a game this season.

LHS rode the energy of a boisterous crowd and a bright, sunshiny day to be the better of two good teams in front of more than 1,000 fans – a Class A soccer attendance record.

Both teams started out tight but it was soon obvious that LHS was intent on owning the middle of the field and took away numerous Central passes.

“We wanted it to be our game and we had to impose our will,” said LHS coach Aloma Jess.

The game was controlled – and maybe even decided – by a host of talented freshmen and a solid gold keeper.

Going into the game – and with memories of a recent loss to Central – the Locos got up close and personal with Central’s leading goal scorer, Zoie Althoff. Freshmen Sierra Branstetter and Kolby Gibbs made Althoff’s last high school game a frustrating one.

They stayed with Althoff most of the game and even when she broke loose, she missed. 

Branstetter may have saved the game and taken away momentum from Central when Laurel was up 1-0.

The speedy Althoff had control of the ball and was bearing down on the goal with only LHS senior keeper Paige O’Toole in the way. Althoff faked and dribbled past O’Toole and took the shot. 

Seemingly out of nowhere, Branstetter chased the ball down and launched it out of the goal mouth and out of bounds.

The play was the perfect demonstration of the difference the freshmen made this season and the shutout reminded everyone that O’Toole’s four years of experience and one state title her freshman year. It was a perfect blend. A championship formula.

The game went into halftime with Laurel up 1-0 and the talk in the Laurel huddle was it was their game to win.

The game opened up a bit in the second half and O’Toole got a bit of a workout but she effortlessly controlled all 10 shots Central took at her.

Cotter essentially sealed the victory in the 64th minute when she took a pass from Gracey Willis and slotted it in.

From that moment on, it was Laurel’s championship.

It was also a good time to note how many freshmen were on the pitch for both teams and what that means for the next few years in the best rivalry in the state.

Can’t have a rivalry if one team keeps winning. The championship was Laurel’s second in four years and the wins acted as bookends for Central’s two championships. 

The girls celebrated on the pitch for quite awhile after the game and then got on the Locomotive bus and headed to Laurel where the police and fire departments escorted them to school.

The two best girls soccer teams in Montana are only 12 miles apart and what many witnessed Saturday might be repeated for a few more years.

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