Minutes after the final match of his high school career came to an end, Xander Burger was lifted off the ground and tossed into the air, bounced playfully by a swarm of jubilant teammates and coaches.
It was the least they could do for the senior forward.
Burger scored an unprecedented five goals, including the eventual match-winner early in the second half, and the Whitefish Bulldogs won the Class A state boys soccer championship with a 6-2 victory over conference rival Polson in front of a large contingent of fans from both schools at Smith Fields Saturday afternoon.
“Never mind that it was his last game or it was the state championship,” Whitefish Head Coach John Lacey said after the match. “Five goals, that’s a special game if it’s the second one of the season.”
“I’m so proud of him,” Lacey continued. “He’s been an outstanding player for our program and in this state forever and today he really showed a lot of people. I’m glad he had this stage.”
Burger scored in the 27th, 30th, 41st, 71st and 76th minutes, and scored as many goals in a state championship match as any team has in the 28-year-history of Montana high school soccer. Only one team — Billings Central in 2009 — had scored five goals in a title match before Saturday.
Burger earned all-state honors as a junior and will likely receive the same again this year after finishing his senior season with 17 goals and three assists. The Bulldogs lost 4-0 to Belgrade in last year’s state title tilt, a game Burger missed after suffering a fluke head injury in practice the day before the match.
“I don’t know, I guess I was just saving up the goals,” Burger said with a smirk after Saturday’s win.
Whitefish (14-0-1) controlled play in the opening minutes, generating a handful of early chances before Burger took a feed from Ian Lacey and put the Bulldogs on the board from inside the box in the 27th minute. Three minutes later, Casey Schneider streaked down the sideline deep into the Pirates zone and delivered a nifty pass perfectly to Burger’s feet, and the senior striker calmly one-touched the feed inside the near post to make it 2-0.
Polson (13-2-1) would not go away quietly, however. The Pirates found their legs midway through the first half and started generating chances of their own, denting the scoreboard in the 33rd minute when Nico River beat the keeper from around 15 yards out.
In the second half, it didn’t take long for Burger and the Bulldogs to get started again. Just one minute into the period, Burger raced a defender to the front of the goal and deftly snuck his foot into position to poke the ball past the keeper and make it 3-1, but again that lead would not last long. Robin Erickson scored just three minutes later, and the Pirates nearly found the equalizer in the 50th minute when Mack Moderie weaved through the Bulldogs midfield but could not get the ball past the last line of defense.
In the 58th minute, Whitefish’s Joshua Gunderson was set up in the box on a Bulldogs attack but fired wide. Moments after the errant touch, however, Gunderson was tackled hard by a Polson defender and Whitefish was awarded a penalty kick, one Lacey converted to put the match out of reach.
“A little hard-done by the penalty,” Polson coach Adam Fansher said. “I think that was kind of the turning point there, when it was 3-2 we were pushing hard but credit to Whitefish, they got the goals.”
The championship capped an undefeated season for Whitefish and gave the Bulldogs their sixth title in program history, more than any other school in the state. Whitefish and Polson were matched up in the state final for the third time, and for the third time the Pirates fell short of claiming their first championship.
Polson put together an otherwise outstanding season in their own right, losing twice to Whitefish and tying the Bulldogs once but otherwise winning every one of their matches. Moderie finished his senior year as the state’s leading scorer (27 goals, eight assists) and classmate Erickson (15 goals, eight assists) was right behind him.
“These were some of my freshmen when I first took over as the high school coach,” Fansher, who assumed the head job in 2015, said. “We would have liked a different ending to their story but I think, in terms of wins and being one of the best programs in the state over these last four years, I think we established ourselves and I’m really proud of that.”
Whitefish, meanwhile, started only one senior (Burger) on Saturday and picked up key contributions in the title match from sophomores James Thompson and Brandon Mendoza, and juniors Schneider, Lacey and Sam Menicke, all of whom will return next year, likely with the expectation that the season ends the same way this one did.
The only question will be who gets tossed in the air after the final whistle.