Facing a penalty shootout with Alexandria in the postseason for the second-straight year, Bemidji once again advanced with a 6-5 victory on penalties after a 1-1 draw in a dramatic Section 8A girls soccer semifinal at Alexandria High School on Wednesday.
Bemidji repeated the feat of last season’s 4-3 shootout win in even more nail-biting circumstances this season. Goalkeeper Kiera Nelson provided a season-saving stop for the Lumberjacks in the fifth round of penalties, denying Allie Randazzo on a spot kick that would have won the shootout for the Cardinals.
Addy Kelly and Kate Martin each matched conversions with Cardinals in the next two sudden victory rounds before Rosie Laitala’s make failed to be matched in the eighth round by Ella Westlund, giving Bemidji another climactic penalty shootout victory.
In regulation, it was the Lumberjacks who struck first after just 11 minutes. Emma Wright won possession in the attacking third before squaring to Peyton Oelrich in the center of the penalty area for a first-time finish beyond Alexandria’s Sophia Vinje. The goal was Oelrich’s ninth in five matches, including seven in the postseason alone.
Bemidji came close on multiple occasions to adding on to the early goal, with Lauren Berg trickling a shot inches wide of the post after beating Vinje on the turn.
Alexandria’s challenge ramped up into full gear as the second half progressed, and ended up producing an equalizer in the 66th minute. Randazzo squared a pass to the center of the field for Westlund, whose long-range shot slipped under the arms of Nelson to level the score.
Both teams had massive chances to go in front in the final five minutes of regulation, with both goalscorers again at the center of the action. Oelrich popped up a pass to herself to volley an effort toward goal, only to see it crash off the post on Vinje’s right.
At the other end, Westlund raced past the Bemidji backline before stabbing a shot under Nelson and just inches wide of the post with a little over two minutes to go. The collision on the shot injured Bemidji’s Elle Bush and ended the defender’s night early.
Despite a wealth of possession and half-chances for the Cardinals in extra time, neither side could break through again over the 20 extra minutes and a penalty shootout again loomed.
After Bemidji’s Marah Bitter was denied by Vinje in the opening round, the Cardinals converted to take a 1-0 advantage in the first of five shooters for each team. Miah Stone struck the crossbar with Bemidji’s second penalty, but Nelson made up for it with a save on the Cardinals’ second penalty.
Both teams were on the mark in rounds three and four, with Emma Neubeck and Peyton Oelrich scoring for Bemidji.
In the fifth and final round of normal penalties and with Bemidji needing a make to keep the shootout going, Sophia Morin struck home from the spot.
That set the stage for Nelson’s massive save, diving to her right to parry a low strike from Randazzo. That extended the shootout into round-by-round sudden victory scenario where if one team scored and the other failed, that would end the match.
Kelly and Martin both converted in the sixth and seventh rounds, but were matched by their Alexandria counterparts.
In round eight, Bemidji’s Rosie Laitala held her nerve with a strike that just slipped past Vinje into the corner.
The responsibility for the Cardinals fell to Ellen Panther, who beat Nelson to her left but struck the post, sending Bemidji into jubilation.
The win was the 15th in a row in Section playoff play for the Lumberjacks dating back to the 2017 season and their first of three consecutive Section 8A titles. It was also Bemidji’s third penalty shootout win in that span, with a win over Alexandria last season and Sartell in the 2018 final the other two penalty kick victories.
Bemidji now will square off with Sartell-St. Stephen in the Section 8A final for the second time in three years. The two teams met in the regular season with Sartell winning 2-0. Gametime on Saturday is scheduled for 2pm at Alexandria, and the game will be broadcasted on KBUN-FM 104.5 and kbunsportsradio.com.
Full penalty shootout highlights (CORRECTION: Alexandria’s fourth penalty taker was Morgan Jones):