HELENA — Mandi Achten knows she got her head on the soccer ball. How the ball found the back of the net, she's not sure.
What Achten and the Class AA girls soccer world can be sure of is the Billings Senior Broncs are state champions, riding that single goal to a 1-0 win over Billings Skyview in the title match on a very windy Saturday afternoon at Siebel Fields.
It's the first girls soccer championship for Senior (12-0-3), which has had to settle for second-place finishes in three of the previous four seasons, including an overtime loss to Billings West last year. But not this time.
"Second place is almost worse than third place because you don't win and you walk away with your heads hanging down," said Broncs midfielder Alex Harvey. "First place is just the greatest feeling in the world and I know we all worked as a team. We're all super, super happy about it."
The championship-deciding goal came in the 70th minute on a corner kick from Harvey. Harvey sent the ball toward the far post, where there was a scrum in front of Skyview goalkeeper Katie Hoff and the ball found its way into the net.
Just moments before, Hoff made an outstanding point-blank save on Achten, who found herself one on one with the Skyview keeper. While Hoff deflected that shot which set up the fateful corner, she didn't have much chance on the ball that went in.
"I'm pretty sure I flicked it with my head," Achten said. "But I'm not sure if it just went in or if somebody else finished it. But it doesn't really matter, because we won."
Skyview coach John Wisler said it looked like the ball deflected off one of his players after Achten's touch. No matter, either, he added. It was tough to be too disappointed after a season of firsts for the Falcons (8-4-4), who had their first top-four regular-season Eastern AA finish and who were playing in their first-ever state tournament.
"I just can't complain," Wisler said. "I know the girls are sad, and, of course, I'd have liked to have gotten first place. But our first trip to state ended up being second (place) in a 1-0 loss to an undefeated team. The girls played great."
It was difficult for the beautiful game to live up to its informal title with Saturday's weather conditions. A strong crosswind blew the entire day, straightening the Montana flag and the Stars and Stripes that fly over the complex and blowing the occasional small tumbleweed across the pitches.
The teams had trouble at first — a player's cry of "We gotta keep the ball down!" was heard less than a minute after kickoff when one ball sailed far over the sideline — but they seemed to adjust by halftime. Senior built more pressure in its attacking third in the second half and it finally paid dividends on the Harvey corner kick. Meanwhile, Senior keepers Sara Heard and Clancee Ferrin combined for five saves.
"With this wind it's really tough to play our possession game but we just figured out a way to make it happen," Senior coach Megan Parish said. "After we won that first game against Helena High in overtime (on Thursday) I told the girls that good teams figure out a way to make it happen, and that's what we did today. I'm proud of every kid on our team."
So was Chez Keehn. The Broncs senior midfielder was only recently medically cleared to play after recovering from a broken leg and subsequent ankle surgery after getting hurt in July during the basketball competition of the Big Sky State Games. But Keehn was able to play in Friday's semifinal win over Kalispell Flathead and to she walked off the field Saturday as a state champion.
"It felt great to get back on the field, it's probably the best feeling I've ever had," she said. "And then to be a part of a state championship team is amazing. It's just awesome. We had the mentality that we were going to win and that nothing was going to stop us."
"It's amazing to finally be the team that's cheering at the end of the championship game," said Achten, who is also a senior. "We've lost — how many years in a row now? — and we were sick of it."
Billings Senior 1, Billings Skyview 0
Skyview (8-4-4) -- Did not score. Shots: 10. Shots on goal: 5. Saves: 8 (Katie Hoff 8).
Senior (12-0-3) -- 1, Mandi Achten (Alex Harvey), 70:00. Shots: 15. Shots on goal: 9. Saves: 5 (Sara Heard 4, Clancee Ferrin 1).
Halftime -- Senior 0, Skyview 0.