BILLINGS – Paige O’Toole stepped on the Laurel girls soccer practice field for the first time four years ago and had no idea what lay ahead of her and her current and future Locomotives teammates.
“Freshman year I didn’t have many expectations,” O’Toole said. “I didn’t know what to think.”
Four years later there is plenty to think about. Standing there Saturday in the bright sunshine on Wendy’s Field at Rocky Mountain College, O’Toole — who played in her fourth consecutive Class A state title match — and the Locomotives were champions once again.
The Locomotives beat Billings Central 2-0 on goals by Kaitlyn Dawes and Aspen Cotter, a couple fine saves from O’Toole, and some workmanlike defense by the likes of Sierra Branstetter and Kolby Gibbs, two freshmen who helped anchor the backline.
It was Branstetter, in fact, who cleared a ball off the goal line when the state’s leading goal-scorer, Central’s Zoie Althoff, made a nifty dribble move around O’Toole and seemed to have a clear path to an equalizing goal just before half.
Instead, Branstetter caught up and sent the ball over the left touchline, preserving the 1-0 lead and, perhaps, Laurel’s dreams.
“They saved our butt a few times,” Cotter, a junior, said of the program’s freshmen. “Hopefully, for the next three years they’ll be doing the same thing.”
Billings Central, which was trying for its third consecutive championship and ninth overall, brought the state’s most prolific offense into the match. Instead, the Rams were left without a goal for the first time this season.
“Laurel came out very strong, very physical, running at every ball giving 100 percent in everything,” Central coach Didier Ndedi said. “On top of that, it wasn’t Central’s day. What usually worked, didn’t work at all. Zero. It was completely off.”
Laurel won its first soccer title in 2014, O’Toole’s freshman season. Since then the Locos made two more return trips only to have Central blocking their path.
Not this time. Already playing with confidence, Dawes’ goal in the fourth minute spurred the Locos on even more. And when Cotter scored in the 64th minute on a nice ball from Gracey Willis, the Laurel players could sense the victory.
Afterward, Laurel coach Aloma Jess was simply soaking it all in. A near perfect performance on a near perfect, cloudless, 70-degree fall day.
“Any given day, and today was our day,” she said. “It was a perfect storm. Everything was perfect. I can’t ask for anything better.”