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Blaine’s Asher Bates dribbled the ball past Chaska’s Freddy Vences toward the net Saturday. Blaine is ranked No. 1 in the state after finishing second last year.

 

Since the Blaine boys’ soccer team became No. 1 in the QRF Rankings — a mathematical formula used to seed Class 2A, Section 7 and others — players are seeing opponents’ best efforts and fielding tough questions.

“Every team wants to take out the No. 1 team in the state,” senior forward Jason Scheeler said. “Even when there is an injury on the field, players from the other team come talk to you and ask, ‘How do you get to be No. 1?’ ”

Taking runner-up at the state tournament last year put Blaine among the top teams coming back. But focusing on team chemistry fueled a 11-1-1 start this season.

Chemistry was missing last season even as the unseeded Bengals upset undefeated No. 1 seed Champlin Park in the quarterfinals and went on to the title game, a sign that even underdogs have fleas.

“We came into this season trying to keep the guys close because last year there was kind of a divide between the seniors and the underclassmen,” senior midfielder Noah Bruder said. “We’re trying to eliminate that.”

Last-minute personnel changes made bridging the gap even more critical. Jamison Kozar and T.J. Soehn decided to play with the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Their departures meant new faces had to emerge.

Junior Nate Jacobson earned accolades for his efforts at Kozar’s former outside defender position.

“He’s definitely made a huge impact,” Scheeler said.

“He’s extremely solid and he’s fast,” Bruder said.

Blaine got off to a fast start, scoring 17 goals in its first three games, before dropping a 2-1 decision to Eagan. The loss brought perspective.

“We were expected to pretty much go undefeated this year,” Scheeler said. “That loss helped us face reality.”

Zach Brunko was more blunt: “It was kind of a slap in the face.”

Blaine roared back to defeat Anoka, tie Elk River/Zimmerman and blank Maple Grove and Park Center.

New goalkeeper Alex Beck has “made some very key saves that keep the momentum going our way,” Scheeler said.

The Bengals also have found ways to respond when things aren’t going their way.

Early in the Osseo game, Blaine peppered the goal with shots but hit only the crossbar and post when it wasn’t missing just wide. The Orioles weathered the salvo, then took advantage of a Blaine defensive lapse to score a breakaway goal for a 1-0 lead. The Bengals regrouped and left the game with a 2-1 victory and some important lessons learned.

“We came in thinking we were going to roll over them but we had to come together as a team and pulled out a win,” Scheeler said.

The Bengals, also ranked first in the most recent coaches association poll, wrap up the regular season this week with games against Northwest Suburban Conference foes Centennial, Champlin Park and Andover. Some important virtual games await, too.

The team’s third annual Xbox FIFA soccer tournament creates an all-night bonding opportunity played out on multiple television screens.

Players select international club teams; junior midfielder Tyler Johnson has won the past two championships with FC Bayern Munich.

Turning a virtual No. 1 ranking into a real-world title is Blaine’s goal. The challenge is coming all the way back to win one … more … game.

“It’s really hard because to one-up yourself, you have to win that last game,” Bruder said. “We want our second chance.

“We had very high expectations coming into the season — a lot of pressure. But I think we’ve done really good job handling that so far.”

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