When Kira Bonser enrolled at North Marion as a freshman, there were three other keepers with her on the junior varsity competing for playing time. Bonser didn’t know if she’d ever find time, but persisted and, by her junior year, was the backup on varsity to senior Allyson Coloumbe.
“I slowly had to make my way to the top,” Bonser said. “I was really hard on myself in the beginning and never thought I’d get to this point.”
This year, it was her time and the senior stepped up.
And, in the last game of her high school career on Saturday at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, she stepped more than she could ever have dreamed about. The daughter of head coach Ben Bonser made a point blank save on one of the greatest scorers in Oregon history in the waning seconds of overtime versus undefeated and top-seeded Marist Catholic. Then, in the penalty kick shootout, she made two outstanding saves, the first of which extended the match and the second of which made the Huskies a 2-1 winner and the 2023 4A champion at the OSAA /OnPoint Community Credit Union Soccer State Championships.
The match started 30 minutes late, because the 3A/2A/1A state championship match, which underdog Catlin Gabel won over defending champion Valley Catholic, 2-1, went into penalty kicks following a scoreless overtime.
It’s uncanny how the North Marion/Marist Catholic match followed a nearly identical arc.
Like Valley Catholic, Marist Catholic was the defending state champion and entered the match undefeated.
Like Valley Catholic, which defeated its finals opponent during the regular season, Marist Catholic defeated North Marion, 2-1, in September.
Indeed, the 4A championship match played out much the same way as its 3A/2A/1A counterpart, both in regular time and in penalty kicks. And it made an unlikely star of an unheralded goalkeeper who awakened Sunday morning not only a state champion, but the Player of the Match.
Marist Catholic came into the match, played in relatively calm conditions under lightening skies, with a record-breaking offense, led by Oregon Duck signee Cloe Chase, an attacking midfielder with 52 goals and 19 assists this season. Chase, the only senior on the Spartan roster, made things happen immediately, as she fed freshman Libby McLaughlin on the left flank in the third minute. McLaughlin’s shot went through Bonser’s hands, but she redirected it enough to have it bang off the crossbar rather than find the back of the net.
Marist Catholic had another great chance in the 36th minute, when Chase stole the ball and shot from close range only to see the ball bang off of the left post.
Though Marist Catholic dominated possession over the first 40 minutes, neither team could break through with a goal. Caile Lader, North Marion’s leading scorer, created chances for the Huskies, as did Bethany Dunn and Callie Cutsforth, but the Marist Catholic defense, led by keeper Emily Meigs and defenders Ava Snyder and Piper Paslay, kept the Huskies at bay.
The game’s first goal came early in the second half and was surprising given how much possession advantage Marist Catholic had had to that point and the nature of the goal itself. Vanessa Valenzuela was fouled 28 yards from the goal, resulting in a free kick. Sophomore Paige Comerford took the shot with her left foot and it was perfect, tucked between Meigs’ hands and the crossbar. North Marion led 1-0.
Marist Catholic head coach Stefan Schroffner said that his team responded to the adversity like champions.
“As soon as they scored no one hung their head,” he said. “We ran back, put the ball in the middle of the field and scored within three minutes.”
The goal, in the 46th minute, came after back-to-back corner kicks. Mattie Andrus took both of them and the second found Chase’s head. Bonser saved the shot but could prevent a rebound. McLaughlin found the ball and space in the scrum that followed and banged in the equalizer.
After that goal, Schroffner felt certain that his Marist team would score again in short order. Getting that next goal proved elusive, however.
“I credit the way they played defense,” Schroffner said. “They really packed their defense. They had 6-7 in the back. It was hard for us to break through because it was so congested.”
As the second half wore on, North Marion came on offensively. The Huskies created at least as many chances as Marist Catholic before regulation time ended.
Valenzuela, Comerford, Lader and Fia Swanson all did nice things to make a goal possible for North Marion, while Melanie Kirstein played big in front of Bonser to prevent Marist from putting one over the line.
“It was a battle,” Ben Bonser said. “They were trying their style of play. We were trying our style. We had a hard time breaking through and the few times we did we couldn’t finish.”
Twenty minutes of overtime followed. North Marion had the better of the play overall, but Marist had the best chances to score. In the fifth minute of the first overtime, McLaughlin created a breakaway for herself with a nice steal, only to see Kirstein, the person she took the ball from, run her down and prevent even a shot on goal.
Marist’s best opportunities came in the last minute of overtime. McLaughlin’s corner found Chase’s head but the scorer supreme was foiled by the North Marion defense. Chase got another chance with 23 seconds left, as the ball came to her deep in the box. The Marist Catholic superstar was poised to be the hero, but was instead stoned by Bonser.
“I’m not thinking, just reacting,” Kira Bonser said. “Afterwards, I’m, ‘Oh wow, I saved that.’”
That was just the beginning of an unforgettable end for Bonser and her North Marion team.
North Marion led off the shootout and scored, courtesy of Swanson. McLaughlin answered for Marist Catholic with a left-footed strike to the left of Bonser.
Meigs dove right to save North Marion’s next attempt. Paslay was able to covert on a hard ground ball for Marist Catholic, putting the Spartans in the drivers’ seat up 2-1 in PKs.
Things went from bad to dire for North Marion when its next kick sailed over the crossbar, but the Huskies got a reprieve when Marist Catholic’s kick hit the near post.
Both teams scored on the next round of kicks, as Yesenia Delgado snuck it past Meigs on the left for North Marion, while Ella Braugner countered for the Spartans.
Entering the final round of kicks, Marist Catholic led, 3-2. If Marist prevented North Marion from scoring again, or scored itself, it would repeat as state champions.
With its backs to the wall, North Marion proved up to the task.
Comerford put her kick into the left corner to square PKs at 3-3. The pressure fell on Bonser. Do or die.
“A lot of it is reaction,” she said. “Keepers have to do a lot of quick thinking. In practice, I’m always against the starters, which means the top players are shooting on me.”
Bonser decided to dive. She dove right. It was the right decision. The confident save sent the teams to extra kicks tied at 3-3.
Both teams scored in the next round, with Lader converting for North Marion and Lucy Crenweige answering with a rocket to the upper right.
Dunn found the net for North Marion to start the next round. If Bonser could make the next save, the Huskies (15-3) would win their first sanctioned OSAA state title.
Bonser settled on her strategy.
“I’ve been practicing getting down on the ground because sometimes they don’t shoot it side to side,” she said. “They expect you to dive. So basically you flop over as fast as you can. I thought, ‘I’m going to do it.’ You have to commit to it before you make the save.”
The Marist Catholic penalty taker did not shoot for a corner. Bonser had guessed correctly! She went quickly to the ground and the ball came directly to her.
North Marion had won; yet. Bonser did not know it yet.
“I didn’t know until everyone started screaming and mosh pitting me,” she said. “I started crying because I didn’t know I was able to do that.”
On the sidelines, her dad got emotional, too.
“It’s just amazing to see my daughter make the save that puts us on top,” he said. “How can you watch that and not be emotional?”
“I’m just happy,” he continued. “They deserve it. They’ve worked hard for years and years and years.”
Schroffner came over after the match to congratulate Coach Bonser and his team.
“You have to credit North Marion,” he said. “They fought hard. They’re a great team. Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce right. We could have had a few goals in the extra time. They just didn’t go our way.”
“I’m super proud of this team,” Schroffner added about the Spartans (17-1-1). “This was a record-breaking team. They scored 104 goals and let in nine. We didn’t win the last game but it doesn’t mean we can’t be proud of our season. Soccer can be cruel sometimes. You can have a great team but you lose in PKs. I told them to keep their heads high. Bear in mind that we have a young team, with only one senior. We’ll be back next year and maybe the year after that and the year after that.”
North Marion’s journey to the title was a lot like its keeper. The Huskies were not the favorites and found themselves on the brink at different times Saturday before finding their way. Their story is like Bonser’s story, she said.
“Through a lot of perseverance and positive self-talk I made it,” she explained. “I connected with my team and we ended up winning state.”