Sports are often games of inches. The smallest margin can make the ultimate difference. For the Alexandria girls soccer team, inches were the deciding factor between keeping the season alive or going home for good.
The Cardinal's 2019 season ended at the hands of the Bemidji Lumberjacks in a penalty kick shootout in the Section 8A tournament. This year, it was more of the same.
After coming back from a 1-0 deficit, Alexandria (8-2-3) lost in an eight-round shootout 6-5. The loss adds another chapter to a sour history of heartbreakers in recent years.
"It's part of the game, and it's not a part I enjoy," Alexandria head coach Tom Roos said. "It's not a part that has been good to us. We have a lot of different players here, and we thought that maybe we could start off with a clean slate. Maybe we could start a new chapter on PKs. We're going to have to carry this one with us for a little while."
Through the first half, it looked as if overtime wouldn't be necessary. Bemidji (9-3-2) struck first when Peyton Oelrich buried a pass from Emma Wright 11 minutes into the contest.
"I wouldn't say that was a defensive miscue, but we didn't play it cleanly with our center midfielders," Roos said. "They had possession with a weak-side attacker that we didn't pick up. That's the way they play. They found that weak-side attacker and were able to execute that."
Alexandria started to get some momentum early in the second half. The Cardinals applied constant pressure, which forced Bemidji goalkeeper Kiera Nelson to make some big saves. That's when Roos went to his bag of tricks.
"I felt like we had an edge in play pretty much the whole second half," Roos said. "As that was going on, we were getting stronger. All season long, we had a rotation with (Ella Westlund), (Allie Randazzo) or (Morgan Jones). Instead of having only two of them in our two-forward attack, with about 17 minutes left, we put all three of them out there. We had Jonsey at a center-mid and kept Allie and Westy up front. It was probably the best pressure we had all game."
It was only a matter of time before the Cardinals tied the game. With 14:13 left, Westlund evened the score on a shot that barely got by Nelson's outstretched arm. From there on, the game turned chaotic.
With seven minutes remaining, Oelrich almost had her second goal of the game. She ripped a shot from 15-yards out that banged off the left post. Moments later, Westlund found herself in a footrace with a Lumberjack defender. She was able to get a weak shot off that slipped by Nelson but went wide of the right post by less than a foot.
Westlund had another chance to break the tie with 30 seconds left, but a physical play on a rush towards the goal ended with the ball going out of bounds.
"Man, she is an athlete," Roos said. "She's fast, tough, physical, and on top of that, she's a pretty good soccer player. If she has a chance to get it off, she has a wicked shot. Sometimes it's tough to get that shot off, and I'd like to see more of that in years to come. She is going to be part of an offense that we can continue to build on with Morgan Jones, who is in the same grade."
In the first 10-minute overtime session. Alexandria had two set-piece kicks that sailed beyond the net. The Cardinals continued to apply the pressure through the second overtime but couldn't break through.
"In that first 10-minute half, it didn't come out of Bemidji's end too often," Roos said. "We had them pinned pretty good. We kept the same personnel out there because we thought we had the momentum. We wanted to finish it before it went to a shootout."
Bemidji had the first kick in the shootout. Goalkeeper Sophia Vinje stopped Miah Stone to give the Cardinals an early advantage. Nelson made a save on Kylee James, but a Bemidji shot off the post kept Alexandria in the driver's seat.
With a chance to win the game, Randazzo booted the ball to the low left side. Nelson guessed correctly to keep the Lumberjacks alive with a diving save. After both teams scored in rounds six and seven, Rosie Laitala put home Bemidji's sixth goal of the shootout.
With the game on the line, Ellen Panther ripped a shot off the right post. Bemidji advanced to the section championship in a dramatic finish. In what was a promising season for Alexandria, the Cardinals walked away feeling like it ended early.
"It's hard to see this happen to these girls," Roos said. "Sophia made a massive save for us to put us in a position to win. Their goalie did a great job for them. It's hard coming this close."