This fall marked one of the best seasons in Alexandria girls soccer history.

The Cardinals advanced to their third state tournament, but the best teams are waiting with them when they get to that level. It just so happened that the best of the best might have been Alexandria’s first-round opponent in Monticello on Wednesday night.

Benilde-St. Margaret’s is the top-ranked team in Class AA with a now 17-0-1 record after a 5-0 win over the Cardinals (15-3-1) in the state quarterfinals.

“I could not be more proud of them,” Alexandria head coach Tom Roos said of his team. “The first half, we were just getting after it. I thought we were more aggressive, we stepped harder and played more physical the first half. We had moments where we had them on their heels where we were mounting some offense and had some cracks at it. But 80 minutes is pretty tough to hold off a team like Benilde.”

Alexandria junior Ella Westlund, right, races for a loose ball against Benilde-St. Margaret's Avery Junker during the Class AA state quarterfinals in Monticello on Oct. 27, 2021. 
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
Alexandria junior Ella Westlund, right, races for a loose ball against Benilde-St. Margaret's Avery Junker during the Class AA state quarterfinals in Monticello on Oct. 27, 2021. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

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The Red Knights took control in the second half, but Alexandria played right with them for the first 32 minutes. It was scoreless up until that point, and both teams possessed the ball almost equally. Ella Westlund had one of the Cardinals’ top scoring chances on a hard-hit shot that sailed just over the crossbar.

Benilde-St. Margaret’s eventually struck with 7:41 left before halftime when sophomore Kiya Gilliand was first to a ball right at the front, left corner of the net. She tapped it by Alexandria goalkeeper Sophia Vinje for a 1-0 lead that ignited this Red Knights team.

Benilde-St. Margaret’s averages more than 5 goals per game, and that firepower started to take over. Sydney Drees scored with 2:46 left in the half before Ashtyn Lowenberg made it 3-0 less than two minutes into the second half.

Class AA's top-ranked Benilde-St. Margaret's celebrates the first goal of the night scored by sophomore Kiya Gilliand, middle, with less than eight minutes left in the first half in the state quarterfinals on Oct. 27, 2021. 
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
Class AA's top-ranked Benilde-St. Margaret's celebrates the first goal of the night scored by sophomore Kiya Gilliand, middle, with less than eight minutes left in the first half in the state quarterfinals on Oct. 27, 2021. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

Vinje has been an anchor for this talented Cardinals’ defense all season, but Lowenberg’s lofted shot from almost 25 yards got through Vinje’s hands as she tried to catch it. Red Knights’ senior Avery Richardson got two goals after that the rest of the way as she helped secure her team’s spot in the semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“They were really good about moving around,” Alexandria junior defender Ellen Panther said. “One minute, they would pass to a teammate that you didn’t even know was there. It was crazy. They were really good about moving, and we were getting a little sloppy with our marking up. We just needed to really cut down on that, but they’re a great passing team, great plays. They were really good.”

Senior defender Kylee James admitted that the team was a little disappointed to find out that they went unseeded as one of the top five seeds in the quarterfinals and drew the No. 1 seed.

“We were just hoping we would get a little more credit than we had gotten, but it’s just how it went,” James said.

Alexandria senior defender Kylee James clears a ball against top-ranked Benilde-St. Margaret's during the Class AA state quarterfinals on Oct. 27, 2021. 
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
Alexandria senior defender Kylee James clears a ball against top-ranked Benilde-St. Margaret's during the Class AA state quarterfinals on Oct. 27, 2021. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

Alexandria did not panic as the Cardinals came out aggressive in that first half and ran with the Red Knights. It was not the finish that Alexandria players wanted, but it was living an opportunity that they know is never guaranteed at the start of a season.

“It was amazing,” James said. “Our big goal was to make it to the state tournament. It’s some of the coaches’ last year. It was a big accomplishment just to make it, so I’m really proud of all the girls. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that a lot of people don’t get to experience.”

James said she will remember the chemistry this group shared and the bond players developed with each other as they racked up wins.

“At the beginning of the year, we talked about what type of team we wanted to create,” Roos said. “The girls defined that. What they did day in and day out is went out and did everything to create that culture. The positivity and the work ethic and the sense of team. That’s not something a coach can do. The girls have to buy in and have to want to create that. That’s what they did. The byproduct of all that is you win a lot of games and you get to a state tournament.”

Alexandria defender Ellen Panther, left, catches up to the offensive attack by Benilde-St. Margaret's during the Class AA state quarterfinals on Oct. 27, 2021. 
Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press
Alexandria defender Ellen Panther, left, catches up to the offensive attack by Benilde-St. Margaret's during the Class AA state quarterfinals on Oct. 27, 2021. Eric Morken / Alexandria Echo Press

There were hugs and tears shared among players and coaches after the game, but those tears were already giving way to some smiles and laughter by the time they talked with their family and friends around the Monticello Stadium almost 20 minutes after the final buzzer. It’s a group of players who could feel good about all they accomplished as one of the final eight teams left standing in the state.

“I could not be more proud of our team,” Roos said. “Not just for what they did tonight, but their approach for an entire season. We as coaches lay the foundation, and then we turn the keys over to them to try to create whatever team they’re going to create. Man, they did such a great job. They created quite a sensational team. They have a lot to be proud of all their lives.”