By Tyler Shoberg
Maybe entering the postseason as one of the teams to beat did it. Maybe they're just better at being underdogs and clawing their way to the top.
Whatever the case, West Fargo did not get the chance last weekend in Mandan to successfully defend the school's first-ever boys soccer championship.
After a marathon, shootout loss to Bismarck St. Mary's in the first round, followed by a loss to Fargo Davies in the consolation semifinals, the Packers saw their season finally end as they were bumped from the state tournament.
But even while their hopes at winning a second straight title disappeared, West Fargo still had a standout season.
"It was the result of a lot of hard work," Packers coach Doug Millar said of his team's season. West Fargo finished runner-up in the Eastern Dakota Conference with a 10-2-0 record, and were 12-8-0 overall, including postseason play. In all, five Packers earned all-conference honors, including seniors Brandon Beyer, Paul Lanctot and Sam Saville, and juniors Brady Rotert and Kory Wolden.
On Thursday, the Packers took on the West's No. 3 Bismarck St. Mary's. Wolden broke a 1-1 tie in the 65th minute to give West Fargo the edge. The next few minutes were critical, Millar said.
"The one thing we like to stress is that, once you score, there's a five-minute window where you need to really play defense," he said. "We let them back in to tie it up."
The Saints' Ben Weisbeck scored less than a minute later to tie it 2-2.
With two scoreless overtimes, it was on to the penalty kicks.
"We spent a lot of time on PKs," Millar said. "At that time, you're in the position; you still have the opportunity to come through."
But St. Mary's scored four times to West Fargo's two to get the victory on move on. The Saints would finish in third place overall.
In the consolation semifinals, West Fargo was set to face Davies, a team they'd beaten 3-0 and 3-1 during the regular season.
"It comes down to, can you beat a team three times?" Millar said. "One of the things about athletics is you always have to respect your opponent."
The Eagles did just that, scoring two goals in the first half and stifling five West Fargo shots. Brandon Beyer made a goal with less than 6 minutes remaining to bring the Packers within a point, but Davies' defense remained staunch.
For his efforts, Rotert was named to the All-Tournament team. He finished the season with 4 goals and 3 assists.
And while the Packers are set to lose nine seniors from this year's team - one that finished runner up in the EDC and never lost a home match - there is reason for optimism. Of their 16 potential returners, 15 will be seniors, including assist leader Lucas Miller (8 goals, 13 assists) and goal leader Wolden (9 goals, 1 assist).
"We may have some growing pains ... but next year should be exciting," Millar said.
And looking back on his 12th year as West Fargo's head coach, Millar is proud of his players.
"When we needed to play well, we did. I don't think we played really, really well or really, really good but we always played at that level where we were competitive," he said.