LUMBERJACK THROWBACK: The Dramatic Win That Helped Bemidji Boys Soccer To A Third-Straight Section Final…And Beyond (10-16-18)

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, KBUN Sportsradio presents a “Lumberjack Throwback”, as we recall a memorable Bemidji High School game from recent years through archived highlights and interviews. Today, we go back to a dramatic victory that kept Bemidji boys soccer on course for a third-straight Section title, and much more that came beyond…

The 2018 fall season was a historic year for Bemidji boys soccer, following up two Section-title winning seasons that had come before it with a 13-2-1 regular season that set the stage for a run at a three-peat. The experience, high-scoring offense, and resolute defense that the Lumberjacks boasted proved a potent combination in the opening two rounds of the Section 8A playoffs, as the top seed in the North subsection cruised to 11-0 and 7-1 victories over Walker-Hackensack-Akeley and Detroit Lakes respectively. Despite frigid early-October temperatures, the level of play displayed by the Jacks was some of the best that had been seen over the last several seasons–raising hopes that special results could be ahead.

Those two wins set the stage for a high-caliber crossover semifinal at Chet Anderson Stadium on Oct. 16, 2018 against the South subsection’s #2 team: St. Cloud Cathedral. A long-time nemesis of Bemidji’s, the Crusaders now found themselves as the team looking up in the matchup. The Lumberjacks had captured Section 8A the previous season with a 3-0 victory in the final at St. Cloud State against Cathedral, who missed a first-half penalty that would have put them in front. Earlier in the 2018 season, Bemidji had impressively dominated SCC on home field for a 4-0 victory in each team’s second game of the season on Aug. 25.

Cathedral stumbled to a 2-3 start to the season, but following a 6-2 loss to St. Cloud Tech on Sep. 8, they ripped off 13 consecutive wins–including 8-0 and 4-0 wins over Minnewaska and Alexandria in the 8A playoffs–to enter the semifinal full of confidence. Much of the reason for such confidence came from their attacking talent: senior and DePaul commit McRay Drong had racked up an incredible 35 goals and 16 assists entering the game, while fellow senior Cole Tetrault had provided 20 goals and seven assists.

Despite their status as the defending Section champions and the recent edge in the matchup, Bemidji had injury issues to key players. Senior captain Aspen Galdamez had been dealing with ankle problems during the season and was still trying to navigate that concern in the playoffs. Midfielder Chase Mock had missed most of the season with a back injury and was, surprisingly, playing some limited minutes in the postseason. Junior forward Silas Hess–who would go on to set program records for assists and points for his time with the Jacks–was playing limited minutes through a nagging turf toe problem. But coming into the Cathedral game, the big surprise was that vital junior holding midfielder Ben Hess was now dealing with an injury and would only be available as a “break glass in case of emergency” substitute.

With his twin essentially unavailable, Silas was dropped into the deeper holding midfield role his brother typically would occupy behind Galdamez and foreign exchange student Pau Mesegue, who had forged an exceptionally skillful partnership in the middle of the field. That meant an opportunity to start up front for junior Logan Mitchell, who had been putting together an excellent season, including his first Varsity goal earlier in the year against Cathedral–and who would now have a chance to make an impact again.

The game got off to an electrifying start for the home team. Bemidji had displayed a knack for scoring quick goals during the playoffs in the opening rounds, and the semifinal was no exception. After some quick play down the flank, Mesegue’s cross was nodded by Aidan Helwig to fellow winger James Siems, who had never scored a varsity goal until earlier in the season against Moorhead. However, the pink beanie-clad senior (an item worn by several players for the cold weather after a breast cancer awareness giveaway the prior week) suddenly found himself scoring for the third-straight game to put Bemidji ahead in the 5th minute.

In a game that became increasingly physical from Cathedral, a foul in the penalty area gave Bemidji a chance to double the lead from the spot. Up stepped Bemidji’s leading goal-scorer Ethan Mock, but his ensuing penalty was saved by the Crusaders’ Jack Thibault, keeping the score 1-0.

Cathedral would take advantage late in the half. Off a mis-cleared corner, Tetrault slammed in the lose ball from the edge of the area to draw the Crusaders level going into halftime.

The second half again featured a fast start from Bemidji. After more creation from the speedy Helwig down the wing, another loose ball found its way to Galdamez, who finished a low strike to restore the lead to the Jacks in the 43rd minute.

Yet again though, one of Cathedral’s top forwards ensured that a reply would follow. In the 62nd minute, another half-cleared ball gave SCC a chance, and this time Drong was the recipient, firing beyond J.D. Bitter in Bemidji’s goal to level the match at 2-2.

With the clock ticking down to ten minutes to play in regulation and Bemidji struggling to create consistent chances against Cathedral’s robust defense, head coach Rick Toward elected to play his final card. A still-hobbled Ben Hess stepped on to the field, moving his brother forward into the attack.

One of Hess’ first touches on the field was a lofted ball in the direction of Silas, who could only succeed in holding it up with defenders converging. Just behind him however, Mock arrived to slam a spectacular drive into the corner of the net, recapturing the lead in the 72nd minute.

The jubilant celebrations that followed from Mock and Bemidji’s fans came amidst Hess immediately coming off the field after his contributions to the eventual winner. There was still more to come for Bemidji, though: after missing a chance to seal the Jacks’ spot in the final just moments earlier, Mitchell deposited a counter-attacking layoff from Mock in the 78th minute to wrap up the result.

In spite of several punishing, questionable tackles and challenges from St. Cloud Cathedral in the closing minutes while chasing the game, Bemidji held firm for a 4-2 victory and a spot in a third-consecutive Section 8A final. The game went down as one of the best, most dramatic playoff games the team had navigated in recent seasons.

Postgame interview with Bemidji head coach Rick Toward:

The victory set the stage for a third-straight Section 8A title for the Jacks: a 3-1 triumph over Sartell-St. Stephen at Chet Anderson Stadium, highlighted by a hat-trick from Silas Hess.

And yet, in spite of all of those triumphs, even better benchmarks were to follow for the Lumberjacks. They would defeat Mahtomedi for a first-ever win at State in the Class A quarterfinals, then stun Academy of Holy Angels in the semifinal at US Bank Stadium for a place in the State championship against #1 Blake. The incredible journey would end there with a 1-0, double-overtime defeat to the Bears.

But those are games and stories for other days…

COMING THURSDAY: A gutsy, stunning comeback.