BELLINGHAM - It only seemed as though one of Bellingham's most unusual goals of the soccer season saved the undefeated Red Raiders and sent them back to the Class 2A State Tournament.
"Auden was the guy who really saved us," said Conlon Kiffney, who scored a distinctive goal in Bellingham's 1-0 victory over fellow state title hopeful Cedarcrest in the semifinals of the Northwest District Tournament on Tuesday, May 7, at Civic Stadium.
"Auden," of course, is fourth-year goalkeeper Auden Schilder, who kept alive his dream of a second state title with four spectacular saves in the second half after Bellingham (17-0-1) scored two minutes into the second half.
The Raiders, now guaranteed a state spot, are scheduled to play for the district title at 11 a.m. on the Cedarcrest field in Duvall against either Archbishop Murphy or Sammamish.
"I'll talk about Auden," said Kiffney, when Schilder modestly just said "thanks" when told that Bellingham coach Matt Zigulis had called him "amazing."
"Auden (who is now assured his fourth state tournament appearance) is the only guy I've ever played with or against who could have saved us tonight," Kiffney said.
Bellingham's goal began as a set piece, when freshman midfielder Keegan Nutt took a corner kick and deftly guided the ball back toward Brad Dale on the right side.
"We've scored off that play before," said Dale - but only with two boys handling the ball, not three as it turned out. "I was trying to score."
Kiffney said he saw Dale's kick turn into a golden opportunity for his 14th goal of the season and Dale's 14th assist.
"I saw the ball deflect and then I tried to shield a guy and it came back to me and I scored," said Kiffney, who made an unusual revolving body movement to score.
Dale said Cascade Conference champion Cedarcrest (16-2) was the toughest opponent the Raiders have seen.
"I would say so," the senior midfield leader said. "They're the most physical and athletic team we've seen. They did a great job."
But so did the Red Raiders, who had their four-man back line back intact with Lars Botterill and Noah Silverman returning from red card and illness, respectively, to join Hunter Hadfield and Blake Langei.
Even so, as Zigulis pointed out, "Our back line guys were dropping like flies (though they would consistently return to the physical struggle), so we really depended on Auden tonight."
Schilder confirmed that this game was the most active he has been called upon to be this season while earning his 12th shutout. He has allowed only seven goals and showed why with 10 saves.
Both teams took 12 shots, and Red Wolves goalkeeper Elliot Wills was also excellent, making seven saves.
Zigulis agreed the game had the feel of a state title confrontation, since both teams obviously brought their A game in terms of alertness, aggressiveness and sheer hustle.
"I could feel my heart pounding, that's for sure," said the coach, who saw midfielders Joel Betancourt-Cruz and Emile Diffley provide senior leadership along with Schilder, Dale and Kiffney.
Zigulis took over the Red Raiders following Bellingham's state title season in 2010, when Schilder was a freshman.
Did he feel any pressure then?
"Oh, just a little," he said with a wry smile.
That was the same kind of pressure Zigulis seemed to feel against the talented Red Wolves, who will play Sedro-Woolley (11-5-2) in an elimination game on Thursday, May 9, at Cedarcrest.
Bellingham had four more chances to score following its second-half goal, but Wills made saves on all of them.
Schilder made a dazzling diving save in the 66th minute to deny Cedarcrest's Jesus Espinoza a goal. The veteran keeper then made another diving save with 30 seconds remaining to remove all doubt.
BELLINGHAM 1, CEDARCREST 0
Scoring: Goal: Conlon Kiffney; assist: Brad Dale; time: 42:00. Shots on goal: Cedarcrest 12, Bellingham 12. Goalkeepers (saves): Bellingham: Auden Schilder (10); Cedarcrest: Elliot Wills (7).