TUKWILA, WA - A trip to the state championship has been an annual event for the Wolverines, making five trips in the last six years. In the previous four trips, the result was the same, as the Wolverines were victorious, hoisting the championship trophy in jubilant celebration. It's the kind of thing that, if you're not careful, you might start to take for granted. This year was different, though. Expectations were tempered, as the Wolverines graduated 12 seniors from last year's team, including several All-Conference and All- American performers. The Wolverines were talented but young, and there were plenty of questions surrounding the team as the year began.
Those questions were answered midway through the year, when the team went to Las Vegas and won three straight games against solid competition, then returned home and knocked off pre-season favorites Issaquah and an undefeated Mercer Island team, capturing the Kingco regular season title and a #1 seed in the state playoffs. They dispatched of upstart Kamiak in the quarterfinals, then delivered a stirring comeback against a Skyline team that was peaking late in the year. That win vaulted them into yet another championship game against an MI team they had defeated somewhat handily just a few weeks earlier.
The stands were filled with anticipation, as a matchup that gets fans from both sides amped under any circumstances, now pitted the two arch rivals in a fight for the state trophy. As the game unfolded, it looked as though it might be yet another Bellevue coronation in the making, as the Wolverines jumped on the Islanders early. They went up by as many as three in the first half, then stretched that lead to four goals midway through the 3rd period. Visions of the annual trophy celebration were starting to emerge for Wolverine fans.
But the Bellevue faithful should know better. It was just four nights ago when the Wolverines looked dead in the water, down 5 goals with less than 2 quarters to go in their season. Bellevue made a remarkable run to come back and win that game, proving once again that no lead is safe in the sport of lacrosse. Mercer Island knew the game was far from out of reach as well, having authored an improbable comeback of their own against Issaquah in their semifinal. It was a four goal lead for Bellevue with less than 15 minutes to go in the game, but there was so much more to come.
The game began as you might expect, with both teams feeling each other out. Each team started the game filled with energy, managing to rip off several shots, but none of them found their mark, as both teams did their best to assess the defensive strategy they were facing. The Islanders threw a few new defensive wrinkles at Bellevue to start the game, and the Wolverine defense did their best to keep All American Evan Condon from getting any clean looks at the goal on the other end. Bellevue would break through first, as sophomore attackman Cameron McMahon dodged from behind the cage and delivered the game’s first goal to put Bellevue up 1-0. The Islanders wasted no time answering back, as Condon sent a bounce shot past goalie Cole Bouwman and the quarter came to a close with the score tied at 1-1.
Bellevue regained the lead early in the second quarter when Augie Fratt beat his man down the alley and scored from the doorstep. Once again, Mercer Island responded to tie the game, but then Bellevue reeled off the next 3 goals to take a 5-2 lead. First came a lefty rip from Fratt, who then followed with two straight assists. The first one came when the Wolverines took advantage of an unsettled MI defense and Joe Bethke snuck around from behind the cage, gathered in the feed and finished. Moments later, Fratt threw a laser from near the top of the box to Bethke standing on the back pipe. Joe popped it into the net before the MI defenders knew what had happened and all of a sudden the Wolverines had built a 3 goal lead. With under two minutes to go in the half, Mercer Island found midfielder Jack Counihan with a skip pass over the top and he delivered a shot to that drew the Islanders within 2 at 5-3. Then with seconds to go in the half, Cole Bouwman made a spectacular save to rob Condon - one of several in the half for the junior goalie - and half ended with Bellevue up 5-3.
The Wolverines took control of the game early in the second half. Justin Angelel kept the momentum going when he buried an outside shot to recapture a 3 goal lead. Then Bellevue drew two flags and found themselves 2 men up, and roles reversed as Bethke became the feeder, hitting Fratt as he cut toward the net and stuffed it past the goalie with ease to make it 7-3. Bellevue looked to be in command at that point, and another blue and gold trophy celebration seemed likely, but the Islanders weren't about to go quietly. They added a goal just before the quarter ended to make it 7-4, and then followed with a low angle shot from just above GLE that snuck by Bouwman and closed the gap to just two goals. They won the ensuing faceoff and scored again, making it a one goal game and ratcheting up the pressure on Bellevue. By now the momentum had shifted entirely toward the Islander side. Their crowd was into the game, and the team was playing with renewed confidence and aggression. When Brett Bottomly scored to tie the game at 7-7, the Islander faithful went wild while Bellevue fans did their best to keep their team from succumbing to the rally, chanting repeatedly "I believe that we will win, I believe that we will win."
Bellevue finally stopped the bleeding when Fratt, who had 3 goals and 3 assists on the night already, scooted past an Angelel pick and fired a bounce shot that stuck in the top left corner of the net. The Wolverines had regained the lead, and hope returned for Wolverine fans. But the momentum was too strong, the will of the Islanders too great. After winning the faceoff, MI drew a questionable penalty on an illegal body check as an Islander shot went wide of the cage. Bellevue's man down defense worked frantically and nearly killed the penalty, but just as the penalty expired, MI found an open attackman on the left wing who brought the Islanders even again at 8-8. MI won the ensuing faceoff, but Bellevue defenders hounded the ball carrier and forced a loose ball. MI recovered the loose ball near their sideline, and with the defense spread out and unsettled, the Islanders attacked the cage and found Brian Grant unmarked just 10 yards from the net. He slung in a side arm shot that put the Islanders up again, 9-8. Bellevue would have two more good looks in the final 2 minutes, but neither of them found their mark, and when the Wolverines pulled the goalie and double teamed Condon, he split the double and got to the empty net to make it 10-8 Mercer Island. MI would add one more empty-netter, putting the finishing touches on an 11-8 comeback win that gave them the state title.
It was a bitter pill for the Wolverines, as they watched their rival's fans rush the field and celebrate the victory. It was the Islanders turn to hold the trophy ceremony at midfield while the Wolverines shuffled off in defeat. But let's not forget how this season started. A year ago, when Bellevue basked in the glory of another championship, there were 12 seniors on the field. Those seniors are fresh off of their first year of college, and the boys wearing the blue and gold were mostly sophomores and juniors. Heck, there were four freshman on the field logging significant minutes as well. By all rights they shouldn't even have been in this game. That's a difficult sell with this group of boys now, as they know they had it in their grasp. They know they were good enough, regardless of their age or experience. But they will learn from this loss. As coach Baumann put it, "“We’ve had our ups and downs all season long, and this is unfortunately the down. But one thing has remained constant for us – we are a family. We’ve done it all together, and will continue to grow and improve together too.” It was a fantastic run to the state championship, one that featured dramatic overtime wins and an undefeated conference season. This team will be back - stronger, better and more experienced, and with the memory of Sunday's game fresh in their minds, hungrier than ever to continue the championship tradition of Bellevue Lacrosse.