Minot State soccer gets rematch with Bemidji State in the NCAA Tournament

Alex Eisen/MDN Minot State junior Ashley Hunter (4) dribbles around Bemidji State midfielder Melanie Peltier (16) in an NSIC women's soccer game played earlier this season at Herb Parker Stadium in Minot.

Searching for answers while being bombarded with questions, Minot State women’s soccer coach Jason Spain remained optimistic that his team would eventually figure things out.

The Beavers were coming off their worst loss of the season, a 5-0 thrashing by Minnesota State Mankato.

“It’s been a tough year,” Spain said in a press conference on Oct. 1 following the defeat to the Mavericks. The Beavers found themselves with a mediocre 5-3-2 overall record at that time. “I’m more mad at myself than anybody else. I just don’t think I’ve done a very good job. Some years are a lot of fun, this hasn’t been one of them. But, shoot, if we turn it around, then that might make this all the more special.”

Minot State (13-5-3) endured one more loss in the regular season on that following Friday night against undefeated Bemidji State, 3-0, at Herb Parker Stadium. MSU then went undefeated in its next nine games to reach the NSIC Tournament championship game to face Mankato once again.

The now three-time defending conference tournament champion Mavericks brushed off an uninspiring first half, in which the Beavers outshot them 8-5 (5-0 shots on target), to slip past Minot State in the title game, 1-0, on a goal by Dakota Wendell.

Tired legs after playing five games in 10 days had done the Beavers in.

“You could see it kind of fall off a cliff there in the second half,” Spain said in a press conference on Monday following the defeat to the Mavericks. “I hope this got us in (to the NCAA Tournament), but I’d rather have the automatic bid right now and the conference title.”

The Beavers anxiously sat on the bubble, hoping their late season push was enough. And it was.

Minot State received the No. 7 seed out of eight teams that made the tournament from the Central Region, marking the fourth time in seven NSIC seasons that the Beavers have reached the NCAA Tournament (2012, 2015, 2016 and 2018).

“This feels amazing and we are really excited we got another chance,” said senior forward Sydnee Canales, who was also a part of the previous two NCAA Tournament teams. “We were kind of betting on Sunday (to beat Mankato), but we fell short of that one goal. We are glad we still get this chance to keep playing.”

Ironically, history will repeat itself, as Minot State prepares to face the No. 2-seeded Bemidji State Beavers (17-0-2) this afternoon in the first round of the NCAA Tournament after suffering a loss to Minnesota State in its previous game.

Bemidji State is coming off an 8-7 penalty shootout loss following a 0-0 draw with the University of Mary in the first round of the NSIC Tournament. MSU went on to eliminate rival U-Mary in the conference semifinals, 3-1.

In the regular season meeting, Minot State held Bemidji State scoreless in the first half. NSIC Offensive Player of the Year, senior Rachael Norton, carried Bemidji State to the 3-0 victory with a goal and two assists in the second half.

“I remember the first half and just feeling like they were completely beatable,” Minot State sophomore Sofia Lewis said. “Sometimes there is a lot of hype that goes toward a team when they haven’t lost any games. Then, you start thinking they’re like invincible. But, when you actually play them, you are like wait. They make mistakes just like us and if we can exploit them, then we can win. It’s possible.”

Lewis finished second in the conference behind Norton in points (46 to 39) and goals scored (19 to 16). They both finished with an NSIC-best five game-winning goals. Norton averages 2.42 points per game (11th in Division II), while Lewis isn’t far behind with 1.86 points per game (34th in Division II).

Lewis needs two more goals to tie Ninfa Ramirez for the most goals in a single season at Minot State. But, her focus remains on finding ways to win to keep playing more games with her teammates.

“Now, we get to try the best we can in a new setting,” Lewis said. “I expect it to be a challenge. But, that makes it all the more exciting.”

Defensively, Minot State closed out of the regular season with five straight shutouts. They did allow four goals in three games during the conference tournament.

“The beginning of the season was a little shaky, but we definitely turned it around,” senior defender Ashley Franco said. “I think the (regular season) game against Mankato was a wake-up call for us. Rather than putting our heads down and looking at it as a negative, we took it as a positive and were able to get ourselves going after that.”

Junior goalkeeper Erin Rafferty was fourth-best in the conference this season in allowing .782 goals per 90 minutes. The defense in front of her with the likes of Franco made it pretty easy, as the Beavers only averaged 3.86 saves per game from their goalkeepers.

“We just kept winning, and this almost feels like redemption for the beginning of the season,” Rafferty said. “Jason (Spain) gave us a pretty good inspirational speech after that loss (to Mankato)… He told us that even though it was a bad loss and we didn’t play very well, our season wasn’t over.”

Bemidji State boasts one of the best defenses in Division II and is anchored by the NSIC Goalkeeper of the Year, senior Anna Fobbe. BSU has given up eight goals all season, which is eighth-best in the country with an average of .408 goals against per game.

It’s been 507 minutes of game time since Bemidji State was last scored on in a 3-2 overtime win over Mankato on Oct. 14.

Minot State knows what it’s up against.

“They are super organized, so we got to find a way to spread them out and find a crack,” Spain said. “Regardless of the adversity we had during the season, we are in (the NCAA Tournament) and I feel like we have a game we could win and certainly a game we could lose.”

The rematch between the Beavers is scheduled to get underway at 2 p.m. this afternoon at the Chet Anderson Stadium in Bemidji, Minnesota.

The other first round NCAA Tournament game being played at Bemidji State will be No. 3-seeded and defending national champions Central Missouri (16-4-1) against No. 6-seeded Augustana (12-5-3).

The two winners this afternoon in Bemidji, Minnesota, will face each other in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Chet Anderson Stadium.

Minot State, 1-3 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, has reached the second round once in program history (2015).

Alex Eisen covers Minot State athletics, the Minot Minotauros and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @AEisen13.