LAUREL — The Bigfork girls soccer team had no plans to be a one-and-done squad in the Class A state tournament.
That was even if unbeaten powerhouse Laurel (which, together with Billings Central, has captured every Class A state title since 2007) was standing in its way, waiting for the Valkyries at the Laurel Sports Complex at the end of a lengthy drive from the northwest corner of the state.
Unfazed by the stakes, however, Bigfork pulled off a shock in Saturday’s quarterfinal match against the Locomotives — and the Class A girls soccer landscape has been flipped upside down because of it.
The Valkyries broke out into a 2-0 first-half lead, then added insurance and defended for their lives in the game’s final stanza to hold on for a wild, shockwave-causing 3-2 stunner against Laurel, the winner of five state championships since 2014.
Combined with Central’s 4-0 quarterfinal defeat Saturday at Whitefish, Bigfork’s upset means that a new Class A girls soccer champion besides the Locos or Rams will be crowned later this month for the first time in 17 years.
That’s a big deal, but for the semifinal-bound Valkyries — who were prepping for over a year for a shot at Laurel — it was mission complete.
“It’s our expected result,” Bigfork coach Park Schara said. “We didn’t come here to lose, we didn’t come here to have a close game. This was a lot closer than we thought it would be, if I’m being honest.
“These kids have been working on this for years. … I took over coaching last year, and our second game of the season, we played Laurel and we tied 1-1. We thought we should’ve won that game, and so I’d be lying if I said we didn’t carry those emotions through this year and last year. This is just redemption for us.”
Bigfork (8-3-2), the third seed from the ruthless Northern A which includes top-seeded Whitefish and 10-win Columbia Falls, was drawn with Class A’s only remaining unbeaten team entering the weekend in Laurel (8-0-4), which had only allowed more than one goal once in 12 games prior to Saturday.
Barely 20 minutes into the match, Laurel had let the Vals slot two goals past it.
Sophomore forward Paeten Gunlock opened up the scoring with 25:11 to play in the first half, pouncing on a bouncing ball in the 18-yard box and slotting past the Locos’ goalkeeper as Bigfork drew first blood. That lead was doubled just over five minutes later when a Valkyrie was fouled in the box, with senior defender Danika Bucklin burying the ensuing penalty that followed.
A solid response by Laurel saw it halve the deficit through junior forward Kaitlyn Dantic with under five minutes left, but at halftime, Bigfork was still up and it had clearly made its presence felt on the match.
“We’ve never came out that strong before in a game,” Gunlock said. “So getting those two goals really amped us up, I think, for the whole game. … We all played for our seniors because we didn’t want it to be their last game.”
Knowing its season was on the line, Laurel came out guns blazing out of the locker room and picked up the pace. In fact, during a several-minute stretch roughly 10 minutes into the second half, the Locomotives had four separate strong scoring chances; of those shots, one went high, one went wide, one clattered off of the crossbar and one was saved.
Laurel scored six goals or more on five different occasions this year, so it wasn’t as if the Locos’ sudden aversion to the net when it needed a goal was a season-long issue. Sometimes in soccer, as coach Tom Maack put it, that’s just the way it goes.
“They were absolutely doing the right thing, and that feeling is a tough feeling,” Maack said. “As a high school coach, you just want to see them do their best and how they feel in the moment is real. But when they sit back and watch that film, they’ll see again over a handful of opportunities.”
Seeking an equalizer as the final quarter of the match started to get going, Laurel, instead of finding it, conceded another to Bigfork. Sophomore forward Brynn Bagley scored in the bottom-right corner from short range to give the Vals a crucial 3-1 lead with less than 20 minutes to play, building Bigfork’s advantage back up to a cozier two goals.
Laurel finally got its second with 10:08 left through sophomore midfielder Darby Boehler, however, setting up a fast and furious final stage of the match. And though the Locomotives again had their chances, the Valkyries stayed composed and kept hold of the lead until the final whistle wailed, which sealed the deal for good.
“For me, I thought there was a couple of minutes left, so when they blew the whistle, I thought it was a penalty,” Schara joked. “It’s the best feeling you can experience as a coach in high school right now.
“Our goal is the state title game, and people have asked who do we want and we honestly don’t care. … This team’s earned it. I think this team, we’re peaking at the right time.”
All that stands between Bigfork and that title-game trip (which would be the Valkyries’ first in program history) is a visit to play Columbia Falls, which won 2-0 Saturday at Hamilton, next Saturday. Expect another potentially wild playoff match; in league play, the Vals and Wildcats have played to 4-4 and 2-2 draws already this year — and another tie won’t happen in postseason play.
On top of it all, pulling off what few have done over the past 16 years — beat Laurel in the playoffs — is about as good of a momentum-booster entering the semis as it gets.
“Everything we’ve done is finally paying off,” Schara said. “And we’re finally where we always thought we were.”
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