As every five minutes passed in the second half, Blackfoot players left their sideline at the 4A District 6 tournament title game, ran over to the side and craned their necks to get a better look at the scoreboard, tucked inside a tent on this cold Wednesday afternoon. They knew the score — 1-0, Blackfoot over Hillcrest — but they wanted to keep track of the time left.
It seemed to pass like molasses.
An assistant coach would jog over, squint at the clock and report back to the sideline. Twenty minutes! Then a player waiting to sub in would take a look. Fifteen minutes! Even head coach Liam Pope. Ten minutes! It was like Inception, every minute taking exponentially longer to drip away.
In a different year, maybe Blackfoot would worry less about the time remaining and more about scoring insurance goals. To be sure, the third-seeded Broncos were doing their best to pad the lead, but they were also minutes away from toppling top-seeded Hillcrest — so time really mattered here.
When it ran out, Blackfoot didn’t have to check the clock. The buzzer sounded instead. That was the Broncos’ cue to storm the field, celebrating a 1-0 win over Hillcrest, earning a trip to the 4A state tournament in a year they spent adjusting to a host of new players and finding ways to look like Blackfoot of old.
“A trophy’s a trophy. I’ll sleep with that thing on my bedside table for the next three months,” Pope said. “But it is different. We went in as the three seed. We had to upset people. We got beaten comfortably the previous times we played.”
That they did. Back in early September, Blackfoot and Hillcrest tied, but when they met two weeks later, the Knights earned a 3-1 win. Hillcrest earned the top district seed by racking up an 11-1 regular-season record, mowing teams down with firepower from forwards Hadrien Pena and Johan Hernandez-Gaytan. They looked like the best team in the conference.
All of which made Blackfoot’s goal from Chris Garcia — and the way the Broncos kept the Knights from creating similar opportunities — so intriguing. In the fifth minute, Blackfoot senior Manny Bartolo threaded a pass upfield to Garcia, who fought his way past a pair of defenders, broke into the open against the goalkeeper and finished into the top left of the net.
Before the action could really get started, the Broncos had a lead.
“He was leaning towards the right,” Garcia said. “So I just chose to go left. Just shot it over there and scored.”
In truth, though, Garcia’s goal was the product of work behind the scenes. Coaches had spent the past few practices helping Garcia improve those kinds of attacks.
“His runs needed to be a little bit more dangerous,” Pope said. “His runs weren’t necessarily dangerous. They weren’t threatening. So it was a lot of hard work, but not effective work. I thought you saw the fruition there of a couple things we worked on.”
For Blackfoot, keeping Hillcrest under wraps wasn’t as simple.
Mostly, the Broncos wanted to keep tabs on Hernandez-Gaytan and Pena, the latter of whom notched five goals — no typo — in Hillcrest’s tournament-opening win over Shelley. “It’s fair to say his name came up in practice yesterday,” Pope said. On the field, the Broncos showed their work, at times man-marking Pena and Hernandez-Gaytan.
The interesting part is that neither had many chances to score anyway. Blackfoot maintained possession for the large part, keeping the ball on Hillcrest’s side of the field, away from where the Knights’ best goal-scorers could wreak havoc.
“Which was frustrating them,” Hillcrest coach Ryan Ellis said. “I don’t feel like we played our width like we usually do. So we just constantly started looking for the through-ball, instead of just trying to play it to the strikers’ feet and build it up. So we weren’t able to create the opportunities like we have in the past games.”
Still, for Hillcrest, all is not lost. The Knights will play Skyline on Friday. The winner of that game will advance to a state play-in game. It’s not the path Hillcrest envisioned, not with Class 4A’s second-best ranking on MaxPreps, which affects state tournament seeding. But it’s the path it will have to traverse.
Blackfoot may not have predicted this either. The Broncos will take it, though. Now, they have a chance to make up for the way they fell in the 4A state championship game.
“Just like last year,” Pope said, “these kids are coachable.”