Blaine defenseman Matt Jacobson, left, applies pressure to Champlin Park's Matthew Blaeser. Photo by Helen Nelson
At best, the lacrosse played in the Twin Cities’ northernmost suburbs gets a shrug.
The lofty rankings, the state championships, the multiple Division I recruits, all of that generally is considered to have been padlocked further to the south, where teams such as Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Blake and Benilde-St. Margaret’s don’t wait for championship squads to come along every so often as much as they pluck them off an assembly line year after year.
Blaine and Champlin Park? There might be better teams in the state, but for sheer entertainment it’s hard to imagine any matchup providing more drama, excitement and unexpected plot twists and turns than the Thursday, May 13, matchup between the Bengals and Rebels.
“I almost lost my mind,” Blaine coach Josh Swart said about the Bengals’ 8-7 victory in a game that was, take a deep breath here: played in pouring rain, suspended for a half hour because of lightning flashes to the south, all but over when Blaine took a 7-2 lead early in the fourth quarter, dominated by Champlin Park’s Mitch Sierakowski in the final five minutes when he scored three of his four goals and, as it turns out, won on a how-did-he-do-that Houdini shot by Blaine superscorer Michael Culshaw-Maurer.
When the clock finally hit zero and the police-car siren at Blaine’s football stadium sounded for the last time, Bengals players rushed the field in jubilation, some of them tossing their equipment in the air in the sort of wild celebration that is customary after winning a state championship.
Yes, the No. 8-ranked Bengals all but wrapped up the Northwest Suburban Conference title with the triumph, but their postgame zest was more a reflection of the zaniness of the finish.
“It was really, really exciting,” Blaine senior midfielder and co-captain Alex Arnsdorf said after the Bengals improved to 10-0 and remained one just four unbeaten teams in the state (Blake, Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Woodbury are the others). “We kind of fell apart in the last 10 minutes, but that’s alright. We got the win.”
Champlin Park's Alex Feldstein, left, goes low in an attempt to elude Blaine midfielder Matt Nickoloff. Photo by Helen Nelson
Even in defeat the Rebels, considered one of the few north metro teams with a chance to knock off the Bengals, could appreciate the game’s high level of theatrics.
“We knew this was going to be a great game, and it was,” Sierakowski said. “Granted, we played bad in the first half. But it was a great game to play in.”
After returning from the lightning delay, Blaine turned a 4-2 lead in what had been a back-and-forth thriller into a 7-2 advantage with 8:54 left in the fourth quarter. Blaine was comfortably ahead on the scoreboard, dominating the time of possession and winning most of the battles for ground balls.
Goals 17 seconds apart by Evan Schnitker pulled the Rebels to within 7-4. Then Sierakowski took over, picking his corners with long-range rockets that gradually whipped a large and loud Champlin Park cheering section into a frenzy.
“He’s been working on his shot a lot,” Champlin Park coach Eric Borer said about Sierakowski, who has 20 goals this season. “I see him, even before practice, I’ll walk up and he’s ripping shots at the net.
“He can really pick corners, especially when he gets just that little inch of room.”
Culshaw-Maurer, a junior who has been in the state’s top 10 in scoring all season, interrupted Sierakowski’s outburst with a goal that came off what appeared to be a harmless looking run from behind the net. With a deceptively quick release Culshaw-Maurer caught everyone off guard with his second goal and what proved to be the game winner.
While the upset-minded Rebels no doubt fall into the “quality opponent” category, Blaine’s schedule isn’t dotted with state powerhouses. So where do the Bengals stack up with the state’s best?
“I can understand why a lot of people would maybe think we are a lesser team because of some of the teams we’ve played,” Swart said. “But, I don’t know, we’ve also played some really good teams that have traditionally good programs.
“To me it doesn’t matter where you play, it’s awfully hard for high school kids to focus and stay focused enough to make sure they are 10-0. All in all, I would be fine playing anybody. I don’t see why not.”
Bring on the state’s best, Arnsdorf said.
“We’re right up there with them,” he said. “We can hang with them if we play our game.”
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1. Mitch Sierakowski, Champlin Park
There's no Three-Stars protocol that says a player from the losing team can't get the top spot, and all Sierakowski did was score four goals -- including three in the final 5:45 as the Rebels rallied from what was at one point a 7-2 deficit.
2. Dalton Berg, Blaine
Junior midfielder was Bengals' most dangerous and consistent offensive threat all game, and he finished with two goals and two assists, including one on a perfectly placed pass through heavy traffic to Michael Culshaw-Maurer.
3. Michael Culshaw-Maurer, Blaine
Bengals' high-scoring junior was held in check most of the night, but the midfielder did score an amazing goal -- and what proved to be the game-winner -- when he ran from behind the Champlin Park goal and flicked a no-look shot that caught superb Rebels goaltender Andrew Blaeser off guard. Culshaw-Maurer finished with two goals and an assist and has a team-best 53 points this season.