by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
After 100 minutes of a scoreless stalemate, with a state tournament trip at stake, the Elk River Elks prevailed over St. Michael-Albertville in one of the most tense face-offs in sports, known as the shootout, Tuesday evening.
In fact, the Section 8AA championship game on a chilly, windy, misty night in St. Michael was so close it needed two shootouts.
After goalkeeper Megan Marsh made a heart-stopping save to ward off defeat in the first of those, the Elks won in the second, sudden-death round on goal by Monet Cairns followed by a miss, wide right, by STMA’s shooter.
“A game like this a lot of fun, but when it comes down to the PK’s, it’s a little scary,” said a beaming Marsh after the Elks piled on each other in a delirious celebration on the soggy grass.
This one goes in the books as a 1-0 (5-4 shootout) victory that sends the Elks to the state Class AA tournament.
The Elks, who notched their eighth shutout, and fourth in six games, take a 10-6-3 record into the state tournament.
Coach Brian Steuter talked about how special was this senior group he’d coached since they were 13, along with the younger kids who bolstered the lineup. “With this group, it’s always been about doing it for each other,” he said.
Hearkening to 1993 when he played on Elk River’s first-ever basketball team to make state, he reflected, “I’m just so glad these kids can have that same experience.”
The Elks lost to STMA 3-2 in overtime Sept. 7 and were seeded third behind the Knights and Rogers, another team that beat them during the regular season. They managed payback wins over both when it counted most, beating Rogers 2-1 in the semifinals.
In the championship match, the Elks had to overcome a stellar performance by STMA goalkeeper Anita Thammavongsa, who shut down every attack in regulation and the two overtimes. The Knights would switch to a different goalie for the shootout.
“Our defense was phenomenal tonight and our goalkeeper came up huge,” said STMA coach Megan Anderson, “and their goalie made some great saves, too. It was just one of those nights, all game long. It could have gone either way. We knew coming in it would be like that.”
In the first half, the Elks had six corner kicks to STMA’s one, but the Knights did a good job clogging things up and the Elks never got the ball to a shooter on any of them. Elk River hit the post on two shots where the ball stayed in front of the net with a couple Elks right there for a follow-up, but Thammavongsa was able to smother the ball both times.
STMA, quiet offensively in the first half, cranked up the pressure in the second half and generated five strong shots in particular, but three of them missed wide or high, and Marsh stopped the others, one of them a diving save on a grounder.
Thammavongsa kept foiling the Elks in the second half. Erin Ness had a breakaway where she beat a defender to the net and got off the shot on the ground, but the goalie dived left and knocked it away. Daulton’s lone hard shot of the night from about 12 yards was picked off shoulder-high. Jenna Kiveley, on a free kick, launched a nice floater that looked like it might slip under the bar but the 5-foot-5 goalie leaped and pulled it down with her fingertips.
So it went to the golden goal overtime. That’s two 10-minute sudden-victory periods, different from the regular-season rules of two five-minute OT’s that are played out. No matter, because neither team came close to scoring in the extra 20 minutes.
That left it up to the shootout where five players on each team get to fire away from almost point-blank range and even the best goalies have little chance. STMA went with a fresh goalie in Becky Panuska, while Marsh, already on the field 100 minutes, went back out girded herself for the firing line.
The Elks were on the verge of losing a few misty minutes later. In the shootout, they got goals from Ness, Brianna Anderson, Lizzy Holien and Sydney Olson, but Logan Daulton, of all people, failed. Shooting third, the Elks scoring leader (with 13 goals) tried to beat Panuska high but the goalie reached up and snagged it like a shortstop.
STMA made its first four kicks and needed only one more from their fifth girl to win and advance to state. The Knights had one of their strongest legs out there, too, in Makenzie Langdok. However, the crisp grounder she aimed just inside the post was knocked away by a diving Marsh’s outstretched hand. A reprieve for the Elks.
“I watched her hips and her eyes,” said Marsh. “Actually, I got my hands on three of them. I just knew on that last one I had to stop it or we lose.”
Daulton, asked if she’d send Marsh a few roses, exclaimed, “Yeah! About five dozen! She really saved me out there.”
So, 80 minutes didn’t settle it, and a 10-minute OT didn’t settle it, and another 10-minute OT didn’t settle it, and then a five-girl shootout didn’t settle it, ending 4-4. So, what next?
Now it’s sudden-death for each shooter, with five new kids trotted out for each team.
Cairns shot first for the Elks, and the sophomore forward buried it in the upper left corner.
And that one turned out to be the game-winner. STMA’s first shooter of the second group missed the net entirely, wide right by inches.
Just that quickly, the 100-plus minute marathon was over, and Elk players and coaches stormed unto the field for a joyous pileup before collecting their trophy, the program’s fifth, and first since 2010.
The state tournament first-round games will be held Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, at various locations, and will shift to the Mall of America Field (Metrodome) for the semifinals Oct. 28 and finals Oct. 31. Pairings will be drawn up Sunday.