After 80 minutes of regulation and 10 minutes of overtime, Keegan James, a heavy-legged sophomore from The Blake School, prepared to start the second overtime of Friday’s Class A boys soccer state championship at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Instead of the typical pass to a nearby teammate or a chip into the opposing end for someone to run onto, James instead went straight for the win, and he converted.
Right off the kickoff, he drilled a strike over a leaping Joe Fletcher into the upper right corner of the net for a 1-0 state final victory over Bemidji.
“It was a feeling like no other,” James said. “I was just happy. I was very tired at this point. Honestly, going 10 more minutes would’ve been very, very tough for my body, but I’m just happy we got it done.”
The idea for the immediate shot came from teammate Jake Lundberg, a senior captain, who said he had previously asked the referee if the play was legal.
“He’s like, ‘Why,’ and I was like, ‘Because we’re going to do that,’” Lundberg said. “And he goes, ‘All right,’ and winks at me. I know Keegan. He has a good shot that I knew would be able to get up and over, so I looked at Keegan and I’m like, ‘You’re shooting it off the kickoff.’”
The effort was the result of 90 minutes of the Bears’ inability to crack all the way through the Lumberjacks defense, despite outshooting them 12-1 and having a 10-0 edge in corner kicks in the contest.
“We’re very proud of what we accomplished this year,” BHS head coach Rick Toward said. “Disappointed in the way the final game turned out, but couldn’t be more proud to watch this team grow from where we were from the beginning of the season to a legitimate threat to basically anybody in the state.”
Bemidji junior keeper JD Bitter kept the Lumberjacks in the game, making nine saves before being forced to exit with 10:37 left in the second half due to concussion concerns when he came out to challenge on a Bears chance inside the Bemidji six-yard box.
Fletcher, a senior and first-year player who had played 370 minutes this season -- mostly subbing in games that the Jacks were leading comfortably or starting games they expected to win -- before being thrust unexpectedly into the state championship.
Fletcher made two saves and helped clear out several Blake crosses into the 18-yard box to help the Jacks through the final minutes of regulation and the first overtime.
“First year playing soccer, you have to go out and help your team win a state championship,” Bemidji senior captain Aspen Galdamez said. “Anybody in that circumstance would be nervous, so he did really well.”
When James scored the game’s lone goal, the Lumberjacks didn’t hesitate.
“Immediately upon that goal going in, my kids went to the keeper,” Toward said. “That was the No. 1 concern. They didn’t drop their heads, they didn’t feel sorry for themselves. They went to their teammate, who felt like he let them down.”
Other than a few free kicks outside the Bears’ 18, the Bemidji offense struggled to get anything through the Blake midfield, let alone the back line.
“There’s no holes on their team,” Toward said. “There’s not a player on that team that we could exploit. We looked, and we’ve been working together as a coaching staff for a long time. We try to quickly identify what our weaknesses are, what their weaknesses are, what are our strengths and there strengths and try to create mismatches and matchups that’ll work for us, and we couldn’t find one today.”
Bemidji’s season ends with a record of 19-3-1 and a program-best second-place finish at state after defeating No. 3 Mahtomedi, 1-0, No. 2 Academy of Holy Angels, 3-1, and pushing the top seed to the 91st minute.
“Us as a team, we made so much history for our town,” said Galdamez.
Eight of the Jacks’ 11 starters this season will be seniors next fall. Although they’ll be missing Fletcher, Galdamez, Josh Jernigan, Pau Mesegue, Will Schwindt, Brekt Thorsgard and James Siems, it’ll be a team with seemingly unlimited potential.
“This is a group of guys that play together all year long,” Toward said. “They play club together, always in the same age group. These guys get up in the mornings before school and they’ll take an open gym and they’ll play for an hour on their own, no coach. They love the game.”
Blake 1, Bemidji 0
BLK 0 0 0 1 -- 1
BEM 0 0 0 0 -- 0
First Half -- No Scoring.
Second Half -- No Scoring.
First Overtime -- No Scoring.
Second Overtime -- 1, BLK GOAL, James (Unassisted) 91’.