If there was ever any doubt what the tone would be in Friday night’s Bellevue vs. Mercer Island game, it was laid to rest very early on. The Wolverines senior goalie, Cole Cansler cleared a pass and then got rocked by Mercer Island’s Peter Mahony. A few minutes later, Bellevue’s Campbell Alexieff (1g, 2gb) drew a flag for a hard, abusive ride on Islander goalie Benji Rothenberg. A penalty was called, but a message had been sent. Goalie Rothenberg got his own retaliation later in the game with a nice windup and slash on Bellevue’s Augie Fratt. Another penalty, another message. The undercurrent for this contest was clear to all the combatants.
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For the first time in a few years, this regular season matchup had meaning. Recent years had given us games that meant nothing more than minor seeding differences. But this time, the loser was almost certainly destined for an extra game and a quarterfinal matchup with Eastside Catholic. The Crusaders are cruising through an undefeated season and the big question is are they unbeatable or just untested? The loser of this game would likely be the one to find out.
Both teams opened up nervous. It took four possessions before any team could get it into their offensive area. Emotions were high and the crowds were screaming. As you probably know by now, Bellevue lost to Issaquah and Mercer Island beat Issaquah. The ability to clear the ball up field, or lack thereof, turned out to be crucial in both those games. So tonight’s clears and rides figured to be a key determinant in the outcome of the game. Bellevue dealt with this by frequently utilizing a solo clear play. Which is just a fancy way of saying that they gave the ball to senior midfielder Garrett Moffatt and told him to run faster than everyone else to the other end of the field. What this strategy lacked in sophistication, it made up for in effectiveness. Tonight, Bellevue would only have three failed clears, and gave up no easy goals on any of those.
Early on though, it was Bellevue’s ride that gave Mercer Island fits. Senior Hank Bethke (2g, 2a, 5gb) jumped in front of a Ben Berejka pass aimed at Kiernan Coles (1g). Only a
heads-up mugging by Coles kept Bethke from scoring an empty net goal and MI went on to successfully kill the subsequent penalty. But the Wolverine ride would be a problem for the Islanders all night, forcing them into six failed clears, each of which cost MI a valuable possession.
You figured the Islanders would have the advantage in possessions simply on the strength of their face-off team. Devlin Conway, Evan Condon and Jack Vassua have combined to give MI one of the highest face-off percentages in the state. And with Bellevue having graduated its top two face-off players, it looked to be a long night for the Wolverines. But nobody told that to sophomore Andrew Choe (52% faceoff wins), who took every faceoff in the game for Bellevue. Winning 11 of 21 against the MI crew, Choe was able to negate a lot of the Islanders assumed advantage in possessions. And while not all the wins turned into successful offensive forays, Choe’s performance ensured that the Islanders had to work hard for anything they received.
Much ballyhoo had been made over the fact that Mercer Island had never scored less than 10 goals in a game this year, while Bellevue had never allowed more than 9. Late in the 2nd quarter, Bellevue held an uninspiring 3-2 lead and it looked like no one was going to be able make any sort of an offensive run. But then MI went man-up, and Bellevue dedicated a defender to lock EMO offensive virtuoso, Chase York, who took the defender behind the cage and out of the play. This left only four Wolverines to battle the Islanders and Cooper Johnson (2g) found a big hole in the zone, took a feed from Mahony and buried it to tie the game. Then with two minutes left in the half, Condon went lefty past Cansler off a split dodge from ten yards out. Choe won the ensuing faceoff for Bellevue but had to retreat into the defensive end, where the Islanders took it away. A scrum over a groundball followed and a deflection sent the ball sky-high in front of the cage, where an alert Johnson out jumped his defender and quicksticked a goal from three yards out. Suddenly, the Islanders were on a three goal run, buoyed by some nice saves by Rothenberg (12 saves.) The half ended with them leading 5-3, and Bellevue wondering what just happened.
Bellevue’s Achilles heel is their lack of offense from the midfielders. Their middies score less than half the points that their attackmen do. Issaquah exploited this by packing the crease and leaving the middies open to score, which they didn’t do. Midfielders had no goals and just one measly assist in that loss. But tonight, Coach John Baumann unveiled two freshmen middies with more of an offensive mind to them. Augie Fratt (2g) and Justin Angelel (2g) caught the Islanders ignoring them. The focus was on Hank
Bethke and Eric Haehl, leaving plenty of time and room for the rookies to ping corners. Which they did. Three 2nd half goals forced the Islanders to pay attention to them and that then freed up Bethke and Haehl, who added one each. Choe continued to be good enough to frustrate and with two and a half minutes to go in the game, Bellevue had a 9-6 lead.
Mahony put in two quick ones within about a minute (his 2nd & 3rd goals of the game) and the crowd roared as the Islanders pulled to within one with a minute to go. But Cansler (8 saves) stuffed Conway’s game-tying shot from 12 yds out on the right wing, and the Wolverines were able to run out the clock. Celebrating Bellevue’s third straight victory in The Jungle, students rushed the field, school administrators yelled in the PA system to no avail, and Bellevue walked away with a 9-8 victory.
As you might have heard, the top three Kingco seeds will be determined by the 3rd tiebreaker, which is Least Goals Allowed in Conference. This won’t be figured out until the completion of next Saturday’s games, but you’d have to say the odds are that Issaquah gets the #1, Bellevue the #2, and Mercer Island the #3. The #2 are in one side of the Championship Bracket that also has Eastside Catholic in it. The #1 seed is in the other side of the bracket, with teams like Bainbridge and undefeateds Tahoma & Sehome-Bellingham.
These teams will likely meet again somewhere. Messages have been sent, tones have been set. Hang on, it’s finally getting good around here.
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