The outdoor message on the Bliss High School announcement board said it all: "Bears Gone Wild,"—and that message was put up before Bliss' come-from-behind 2-1 win over The Community School in Wednesday's championship game of the Fourth District 3A boys' soccer tourney.
Unbeaten #1-seeded Bliss (14-0-1) did go wild on its home "Dog Patch" field after rallying from a 1-0 deficit in the final 24 minutes and winning the district championship over the #2-seeded Community School (14-2-1) by a single goal. Freshman Cole Erkins scored the winner with four minutes remaining.
"We're a second half team and we tend to start slow," said Bliss head coach Daniel Knapp. "We had the wind and sun at our backs in the second half and came out fired up."
The Bliss hero was young Erkins, in the right place at the right time to convert a rebound after Cutthroat goalkeeper Regan O'Reilly made a great save on Bears senior striker Eli Gough (36 goals season) at 76 minutes. Gough had beaten two defenders and equalized 1-1 at 56 minutes.
Another hero was Bliss senior goalkeeper Michael Faulkner (20 saves), who kept his team alive with some outstanding saves until Gough could sneak away from the defense.
"It was the last game on our home field for the seniors and we wanted to go out with a district championship," said Faulkner. "So we picked it up a notch. And we wanted to win it for Jovan Rojas, who couldn't play."
Top Bliss scorer Rojas (37 goals) was ineligible for Wednesday's game.
With the win, top-ranked Bliss gained an automatic berth in the State 3A tournament Oct. 19-21 at Capitol Soccer Complex in Meridian. The Bears have unfinished business at state, coach Knapp reminded them after Wednesday's victory. Bliss went 1-2 at last year's state tourney.
But Bliss has a tough draw. The Bears are matched against the Fifth District champion—likely #3-ranked American Falls (12-1)—in the first round of the State 3A meet. That's the same first-round match-up as last year, when American Falls defeated Bliss 4-3 en route to fourth place.
Meanwhile, coach Richard Whitelaw's Cutthroats are regrouping for Saturday's state tournament play-in match, which is set for 3 p.m. at Browning Field in Elkhorn where they've played 12 of their 17 games this fall.
Their opponent Saturday will be the winner of Friday's loser-out game between Filer and Wendell. The Cutthroats (10-1-1 home) are 5-0 with a 38-4 goals-against this season against Filer and Wendell.
Ironically, the Cutthroats might have a better draw at state because they finished second in the district. If Whitelaw's team wins Saturday's play-in game, they'll play the Third District champion in the first round. That would be the winner of Thursday's game in McCall between #5-ranked 2005 state runner-up McCall-Donnelly (8-6) and Fruitland.
The Cutthroats will have to pick it up a notch from here on. They out-shot the Bears 23-17 Wednesday and had an overwhelming 10-2 edge in corner kicks, but they scored only once—when senior Ryon Campbell headed home a corner kick by junior Max Harris in the 14th minute.
Among goalie Faulkner's highway robberies was a sterling save on Cutthroat freshman Tanner Flanigan early in the first half, and a remarkable jump save on a 30-yard blast by Caleb Sonneland, also in the first half. Faulkner was equal to a Community School flurry in the first five minutes of the second, quieting the Cutthroats.
"We had plenty of chances and dominated the second half, but we couldn't finish," said Whitelaw, whose team had tied Bliss 1-1 back on Sept. 15. "Bliss just kicks and chases so we knew what was coming. But Eli (Gough) got away twice and that was it. Good for Bliss, though. There's a reason they're undefeated."
Sonneland and fellow senior Alden Remington played very well in the midfield for the Cutthroats. The defense of "Man of the Match" Jackson Bates, a gritty freshman, plus sophomore Alex Conn, freshman Bergen Palmer and co-captain Campbell was nearly impenetrable.
O'Reilly (15 saves) had no chance on the game-winning rebound by Erkins, unmarked in the goal area.
But the Bliss defense of Jaime Altamirano, Adam Burk, Quinton Miller and Cameron Schoessler deserved credit for shutting down Cutthroat leading scorer Travis Stone (29 goals) for the second time this season. Stone was quiet throughout the second half.