Detroit Lakes girls soccer coach Ben Aastuen knew what his team was getting into when they made the trip to Alexandria on Saturday. He still walked away impressed with the Lakers’ performance in a season-ending 2-0 loss.
The fifth-seed, Detroit Lakes (8-9-1), had its chances to break through against the top-seeded Cardinals (14-2-1) in the semifinal round of the Section 8AA tournament but fell in a hard-fought 2-0 game.
“They’re a very strong team,” Aastuen said of Alexandria. “Despite their speed, we had so many offensive opportunities. I’m so proud our girls were not daunted by it. When you’re met with a challenge like that, sometimes, teams get nervous or scared. Our team was ready to go and fight for it today.”
The Lakers threatened with the first quality scoring chance of the afternoon off the foot of junior Abby Larson. Her shot sailed just past the far post to the right of Alexandria goalkeeper Sophia Vinje.
The Cardinals broke through in the 27th minute when sophomore Sophia Korynta snuck one by the right arm of Lakers’ sophomore Elle Bettcher. Elle Heydt got the ball to Korynta in front of the goal to set up the tie-breaking strike.
“We talked about going out there and trying to get a goal early,” Alexandria head coach Tom Roos said. “We got our first goal a little later than we hoped, but we are still the top team in this section...Once we knocked in that first goal, I think we started believing in ourselves a little bit more.”
Korynta was the most prominent pest for the Detroit Lakes defensive unit to slow down. She found ways to get the ball to the goal several times but could only beat Bettcher once.
“This was her strongest game of the year,” Roos said of Korynta. “It’s been a real grinding schedule for those attackers, but I think she’s picking it up. They have a very fast center defender that made things tough down the middle. There were some nice combinations between (Ella Westlund) and Sophia. The high pressure on their defenders allowed us to keep it in their defensive end.”
After the Cardinals broke the ice, they found their offensive rhythm. However, Bettcher was up to the task. She made several sprawling saves, much like the ones she made to help Detroit Lakes beat St. Cloud Tech in the quarterfinal round.
“She has this thing that switches on in her brain that says it’s game time, and it’s really fun to see,” Aastuen said. “Sometimes in practice, it’s not turned on, and then I tell her to turn it on, and then she’s diving for every ball. When she’s locked in, there’s not a ball that she can’t get to. She’s an amazing player.”
“We wanted to continue to put pressure on her,” Roos said of Bettcher. “She did make some great saves. It wasn’t like there was one weakness of hers that we could focus on. We just had to continue to keep pressure on her. She made a ton of saves, but eventually, one is going to get through. She was very strong.”
Alexandria kept the pressure on offensively, which set up numerous set-piece chances late in the game. The Lakers did a good job of holding their positions to be able to stay within striking distance.
With under 30 minutes left in regulation, Roos subbed in freshman Allie Habaala. Three minutes later, she scored on a gritty individual effort to get by two Laker defenders on her way to the front of the goal.
“Allie is a high-impact player,” Roos said. “She’s fast and powerful. When she’s out there, I think people don’t think much is going to happen, and then she goes. It’s deceiving. She’s a very exciting player.”
Each of the last two seasons ended at the hands of Bemidji in a penalty kick shootout. Even with Bemidji out of the section, Tuesday provides another chance for the Cardinals to get over the hump.
The Cardinals have been to state two times in program history, with the latest coming in 2012. To get back to the big dance for a third time, they will have to go through Little Falls (14-3-1). The Flyers knocked off second-seeded East Grand Forks (14-2) on the road by a score of 3-1.
In the only meeting between the two teams this year, Alexandria beat Little Falls 2-1 on Oct. 2 at home. The section championship will be in Fergus Falls at 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
“We were just talking about having faith in ourselves and having faith in our teammates,” Roos said. “We were undefeated in the section over the course of the season. We beat every team in this section, so we need to look at that and have faith in ourselves and faith in each other so that when we go out there, we play the way we are capable of playing.”