POULSBO - The Red Raiders dug in, grinded for 73 minutes and did just enough to leave the Kitsap Peninsula still alive in the Class 2A State Tournament.
It's hard to be disappointed with a postseason win, especially a victory in a state round of 16, but Bellingham boys' soccer coach Matt Zigulis has seen finer performances from his Northwest Conference champions.
"We kind of, if you will, played down to their level," said the Red Raiders coach. "But, you know, we traveled and they're at home. Give them credit for sticking with it, getting that goal and putting the pressure on us."
Bellingham seemed it would ease its way into the state quarters after scoring two goals within the first 10 minutes.
Red Raiders sophomore striker Noe Betancourt-Cruz scored in the fourth minute, senior Conlon Kiffney added a goal in the seventh minute and Bellingham did just enough to stave off North Kitsap to earn a 2-1 result Wednesday, May 15, at North Kitsap High School in Paulsbo.
The win advances Bellingham to the quarterfinals where it faces Ridgefield Saturday, May 18, at a site and time to be determined.
The Red Raiders capitalized on two early North Kitsap mistakes, ones Vikings coach Greg St. Peter called "gifts."
Betancourt-Cruz was the first Red Raider to take advantage.
He got control of the ball near the right side of the 18-yard box after a defender botched an attempt to clear, fought his was through the defender's challenge and sent a low shot inside the near post past the outstretched arms of Vikings keeper Thor Breitbarth.
Betancourt-Cruz ran along the Bellingham sideline and blew a kiss to the Red Raiders fans that made the long voyage.
Minutes later Red Raiders senior midfielder Kiffney jockeyed for position inside the North Kitsap 18-yard box on an end-to-end pass, pinned a Vikings' defender on his back and sent a header over Breitbarth, who was too far out of his goal. The score gave Bellingham a 2-0 lead seven minutes in.
The Red Raiders' fast start was short lived. As soon as Kiffney's ball found the back of North Kitsap's net, Bellingham played with a different urgency, or a lack thereof.
"I think at first we were working hard, and we wanted the goals," Betancourt-Cruz said, "but, I mean, we got the two goals really early, and I felt like our team stepped down after. We could have played much better than that."
North Kitsap used its speed to get down the sidelines and began stringing scoring opportunities together. The Vikings' Daniel Norberg cut Bellingham's lead to 2-1 in the 21st minute, capitalizing on a Red Raiders defensive miscue.
Bellingham goalkeeper Auden Schilder once again showed why he's top-flight. He prevented goals by making several intelligent decisions on North Kitsap through balls and made a leaping highlight-worthy save midway through the second half on a great shot from 25 yards out.
"He's world class," Zigulis said of Schilder. "That's what he is. He comes to play regardless of the situation. I let the guys know, we can't take that for granted. That's special."
North Kitsap began pressing late, but the Red Raiders were stout enough to hold off the Vikings' attacking persistence.
"We talked about we had the early lead, which was nice, but we didn't keep the pressure on, and we paid for it," Zigulis said. "We were on our back heels the whole way, chasing a bit."
Still, Bellingham got the win it needed and maintains its end goal.
"I'm really happy for us," Betancourt-Cruz said. "We worked really hard for this. We didn't play our best game, but we worked hard, and I hope we go to the end."
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
BELLINGHAM 2, NORTH KITSAP 1
Scoring: Goal: Noe Betancourt-Cruz (Bellingham), time: 4; Goal: Conlon Kiffney (Bellingham), assist: Auden Schilder, time: 7; Goal: Daniel Norberg (North Kitsap), assist: Brady Sparrow, time: 21. Shots on goal: Bellingham 9; North Kitsap 6. Goalies (saves): Bellingham: Auden Schilder (5); North Kitsap: Thor Breitbarth (7).
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.