BILLINGS — In the calculus of long bus trips, it’s about 5½ hours between Missoula and Billings. In terms of high school sports, that’s quite a distance to travel if you can’t find some good fortune along the way.
But the road was kind to Missoula Hellgate’s girls and Missoula Sentinel’s boys on a rainy Friday, as both pulled off victories at Amend Park in Billings against higher-seeded competition to advance in the State AA soccer playoffs.
For Hellgate, the No. 4 seed from the Western division, a 2-1 win over the East’s top seed, Billings West, means the Knights have now ventured into uncharted waters. And it was no sure bet.
The teams played to a 1-1 stalemate after 80 minutes of regulation time and 20 more minutes of overtime, but it was Ashley Young’s penalty kick that ended the proceedings and sent Hellgate into the semifinals for the first time.
In similar late-game fashion, Sentinel’s boys, the third seed from the West, overcame a two-goal deficit against Billings Senior, the East’s No. 2, and prevailed 3-2 in overtime. Alex Levchenko’s goal in the 85th minute was the decider.
Meanwhile, Billings Central’s boys made good use of home-field advantage earlier Friday by beating Bigfork 3-1 to advance in the Class A playoffs.
‘Just me and the ball’
Hellgate’s Young is not normally called upon in penalty-kick situations. Nevertheless, first-year coach Natalie Hiller, knowing the Knights needed one more goal to win, had faith that Young could deliver in a high-stakes moment.
Young didn’t disappoint. With the kick tally at 3-3 on the heels of a West miss, Young fired the ball to the right side of the net where it deflected off the hands of diving goalie Kendell Ellis and into the twine.
Hiller, who played her college soccer at the University of Montana, refers to Young as Hellgate’s “pocketful of sunshine.” And she was certainly beaming afterward.
“As soon as I stepped up it’s like my mind cleared and it was just me and the ball,” Young said. “I just tried to put it in the back of the net.”
Hellgate had lost to West in the postseason in each of the past three seasons, so this victory is a watershed moment for the program.
West, the defending state champion, got the scoring started in regulation on a goal from Satory Taylor. Hellgate answered 11 minutes later with a goal off the foot of Lucia Ann Baker.
“It’s a total tossup when you get to PKs,” said West coach Rob Zimmerman. “I was confident in our team and in our abilities. It’s just one of those things. Sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t, and today it didn’t go our way.”
Senior’s boys were up 2-0 on a pair of Trey Draayer goals and in control of their quarterfinal match with Sentinel after the teams played a scoreless first half.
But the Spartans got a break when the Broncs were called for a hand ball inside the box, which resulted in a penalty-kick goal by Tait Kuchenbrod. That seemed to turn the momentum.
Sentinel’s Jayden Chong then scored in the 76th minute on a crossing feed from Levchenko and the game was tied.
Levchenko, streaking down the left side of the field, later found the net on a counterattack in overtime to put Sentinel ahead, and the Spartans held on from there.
“As soon as I saw the opportunity to get the ball I was yelling as much as possible,” Levchenko said, rain and sweat dripping from his hair. “As soon as it came to me, I just finished it.”
“It feels great,” he added. “Making that 5½-hour drive, I did not want to go home with a loss.”
Senior coach Zach Robbins said Sentinel capitalized when it had its opportunities.
“There was a momentum change. But even then it still felt like when we were up 2-1 that it was our game,” Robbins said. “That happens. That’s the game of soccer.
“We knew they were a tough team, and they responded when they were down 2-0.”
Capping off a win
Billings Central’s boys found themselves in a pressure-packed second half after Bigfork’s Ben Pilskalns tied the game 1-1 on a penalty kick.
But the Rams, the Eastern division’s top seed, got consecutive goals from Camden Capser to take the lead and, eventually, win.
Sam Dull also scored for Central. Matheus Penha assisted on all three of the Rams’ goals.
“Bigfork pressured us a little more than what we’ve seen in the past, but the boys responded really well,” said coach Nolan Trafton, who will coach Central’s girls team on the road against Stevensville on Saturday. “That was good for us to have a tie game into the second half. It just motivated the boys.”
Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac
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