By COLIN GAISER
The Daily Inter Lake
After missing the 2017 championship game, Xander Burger seized the moment in his final game in a Bulldogs’ uniform.
The senior captain scored five goals — in front of hundreds of fans and onlookers — as Whitefish rolled over Polson 6-2 in the Class A boys soccer championship match on Saturday at Smith Fields.
The Bulldogs finish the season undefeated with a 15-0-1 record, the lone blemish a regular season draw at Polson.
“I’m feeling ecstatic. It feels great, especially after last year,” Burger said, when a concussion forced him to miss Whitefish’s championship defeat to Belgrade.
“I could not imagine a better way to go out.”
“That’s outstanding no matter when it happens,” Whitefish coach John Lacey said, “especially when it’s your last game as a high school player and in the state championship. That’s just outstanding. I’m so proud of him.”
The third meeting between the Bulldogs and Pirates looked to be a goalfest from the start, as both teams came out aggressive and looking to attack. Whitefish had multiple opportunities in front of the net, but Pirates’ senior forward Robin Erickson offered the first real threat of the game. In the 23rd minute, Erickson fired a shot from 18 yards out that forced Whitefish goalkeeper Colter Upton to make a tremendous save.
The Bulldogs finally found the net in the 27th minute when Burger scored from close range on a well-placed shot from a tricky angle. Junior Ian Lacey notched the assist.
Three minutes later, junior Casey Schneider — the Bulldogs’ leading scorer this season — played a perfect cross that found Burger sprinting into the penalty box. Burger blasted the ball into the net to make it 2-0.
The Pirates answered in the 33rd minute on an excellent strike by senior Nico River. He received the ball near the top of the penalty area, and after setting himself up for a shot he placed the ball into the left corner of the goal, just out of reach of Upton.
Burger struck again just a minute after halftime. A Polson defender deflected Schneider’s pass from the end line, but Burger followed the ball and poked it into the net. Class A’s leading scorer, senior Mack Moderie, did all he could to keep the Pirates in the match. In the 44th minute, he outran the Bulldogs’ back line to receive a pass and fired a shot from close range. Upton saved the shot, but Erickson was there for the rebound to make it 3-2.
But a penalty kick in the 58th minute shifted momentum back to the Bulldogs. The officials awarded the penalty after Whitefish sophomore Joshua Gunderson was tackled in the box, and Ian Lacey buried the penalty shot.
“I thought the penalty was the deciding moment of the game,” Polson coach Adam Fansher said.
“That really turned around the game. We had to put some extra numbers forward to try and get back in it ... and we struggled chasing the game.”
Upton and the Bulldogs defense continued to stifle the Pirates’ attack and prevent any quality shots on goal.
“I think we knew they were going to have the ball at their feet and we were going to have to win some one-on-ones and tackle the ball away,” John Lacey said.
Already with a hat trick, Burger put the game out of reach with his fourth and fifth goals; a left-footed strike from the top of the penalty box in the 71st minute, and a shot in the 76th minute from the left side of the box beyond the outstretched arms of Polson’s freshman goalkeeper Kaden Nelson.
When asked how he was able to score so many goals, Burger was quick to heap praise on his team.
“I don’t know, it was a team thing. It wasn’t just me out there. I just played hard,” Burger said. “I’m super proud [of the team]. No losses, one tie in a single year. It feels great.”
“Even without the kind of performance that Xander had, this would have been a great showing for our team. They played well, we played our soccer,” John Lacey said. He said his team’s offensive discipline and patience — a hallmark of the Bulldogs all season — paid off in the championship game.
He said outside midfielders Ian Lacey and sophomore Brandon Mendoza helped the Bulldogs “play the kind of soccer that we need to play for results like Xander’s to happen.”
Whitefish’s defensive center midfielders — Thompson, sophomore Niath Edland and junior captain Sam Menicke — held strong against Polson’s explosive attack.
“We didn’t ask them to get forward much, we needed to hold them back and when they get the ball, win it and get it to those guys on the outside,” John Lacey said.
Fansher said that despite the loss, it was a fantastic season for the Pirates. His team finished 14-2-1 and won every match except those against Whitefish.
“Both these last two years, we’ve been knocked out by an undefeated state champ,” Fansher said. But the team racked up wins against Class A powerhouses Frenchtown and two-time defending champion Belgrade.
“I wasn’t sure what we were gonna look like [when the season began], but the way we were able to integrate ... this team exceeded my expectations,” he said.
In the girls championship match in Billings, Billings Central beat Laurel 1-0 in a shootout.
Whitefish 2 4 — 6
Polson 1 1 — 2
W – Xander Burger (Ian Lacey), 27:00
W – Burger (Casey Schneider), 30:00
P – Nico River (Bridger Wenzel), 33:00
W – Burger (Schneider), 41:00
P – Robin Erickson, 44:00
W – Lacey (penalty kick), 58:00
W – Burger, 71:00
W – Burger (Lacey), 76:00
Shots – Whitefish 14, Polson 11; Keeper saves – Whitefish 9 (Colter Upton), Polson 8 (Kaden Nelson); Corner kicks – Whitefish 8, Polson 2; Fouls – Whitefish 11, Polson 10.