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West Fargo's Austin Dillard takes the ball past Bismarck Century's Dominic Neameyer during the boys state soccer championship game in Grand Forks on Saturday. Carrie Snyder/The Pioneer

PACKERS CROWNED STATE CHAMPIONS

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Seniors on the West Fargo boys soccer team were hoping to leave a lasting impression when they constructed an entrance tunnel to their playing field before the season began.

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Last weekend, they constructed something else that likely made an even greater impact: a winning strategy resulting in an epic state championship win.

"It was very exciting," Packers varsity coach Doug Millar said. "The fact that we basically found ourselves in the hole in each of the three matches, persevered and rallied back... it was quite a tribute to the seniors and leadership on the field."

Not only did West Fargo garner its first state title ever, but it did so by taking down a previously undefeated team in the semifinals, and then pushing all expectations to win in double overtime during the title bout.

West Fargo started off taking down Bismarck 2-1 in Thursday's opening round. The Demons struck first blood with a goal in just the fifth minute of the game, but the Packers quickly answered four minutes later when Nick Larson scored off an Austin Dillard assist. Captain Jade Johnson put it away with a game-winning penalty kick in the second half.

Though Bismarck was no cakewalk, the Packers knew their next opponent would be their toughest of the season.

"I told my staff, 'this is the championship,' " Millar said.

That's because West Fargo was set to face the previously undefeated Deacons. Coming in at 10-0-2 in conference play, and having beat the Packers twice during the regular season, Shanley was an ominous foe.

Like their previous game against the Demons, the Packers once again found themselves in the hole when Shanley scored in the first half. Jade Johnson answered for West Fargo in the 47th minute, but the Deacons tied it up less than 10 minutes later.

That's when Tarley Gaye stepped up for the Packers. The senior scored back-to-back goals at the end of the second half to put it away for West Fargo.

"The kids thought deep down that it wasn't going to come easy, but we minimized our mistakes," Millar said.

Finding themselves heading to the state championship, West Fargo was elated, but Millar and the rest of the coaching staff kept their athletes grounded.

"I told them 'let's not live through yesterday's match,' " he said.

Bismarck Century scored first in the championship game, but Johnson tied things up for West Fargo later in the first half. What followed were nearly 70 minutes of pulse-driving soccer that culminated at the 98th minute in double overtime. That's when Packers' forward Dillard finally scored off an assist from captain Kody Duncan.

That was it: the Packers had won the title.

"It was a culmination of the entire season," Millar said.

Johnson, Gaye, Dillard and keeper Braden Schmid, who made 20 saves on the tournament, were named to the All-Tournament team. For the seniors, it was their last hurrah, and the ultimate time to shine.

"It wasn't just one person who carried us, it was a team effort," Millar said. "We told the players to stay focused on the things that make a difference; learn from your mistakes and move on.

"I could go on and talk about every kid that played, even the ones that played just a few minutes, and every one seized that opportunity they were presented with."

Going into next year, the Packers will get a chance to defend their title for the first time. It will be a chance to have a target on their back for once, Millar said.

"I can guarantee you one thing," he said. "They're not going to hand us anything."

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