(Editor's note: Story by Evan O'Kelly/MSUB Athletics)
BILLINGS – Lexie Bloyder’s soccer story will fittingly finish exactly where it started.
The Montana State University Billings senior will play her final two home matches this weekend at Yellowjacket Field, the final pitch of the many in town that the Billings native has played on during a career that dates back to age six.
Bloyder was never guaranteed playing time for her hometown university – she has earned every single one of her 3,175 minutes throughout 57 matches dating back to the fall of 2018. She wasn’t guaranteed to make 38 starts including 24 in-a-row entering Thursday’s Great Northwest Athletic Conference tie against Western Oregon University at 1:30 p.m. She wasn’t guaranteed to wear the yellow captain’s arm band in her final campaign for the Yellowjackets, but she earned all of that too.
“I knew after her freshman year that she was going to be a starting contributor to the team, and I would have projected that she would be a captain of this team one day,” said Yellowjacket head coach Stephen Cavallo. “Her humble, hard-working spirit is exactly what the program is all about. Lexie had a constant desire to get better and be coached, and she was not afraid to put her weaknesses under a microscope and work to improve.”
Bloyder and the Yellowjackets (5-7-3, 2-6-2 GNAC) have four more games on the regular-season schedule, and maintain an outside shot to earn a qualifying spot in the GNAC Championships. It will be an uphill battle, and the team will have to win while also receiving help from conference opponents, but it’s a fitting semblance of the battle Bloyder has faced since the outset of her collegiate career.
It’s a career that has tested her in countless ways – from dealing with self-doubt to learning to become a leader during a pandemic that wiped out an entire season. It’s a career that has pushed her to learn how to be a dangerous attacking player at the collegiate level, while also applying her blistering speed to an outside back role on the defensive unit.
Had it not been for newfound inspiration for the game during the summer of her junior year at Billings West High School however, it’s a career that may not have even taken shape at all. Bloyder’s soccer story is nearing it’s end – right here at home – but perhaps its most important moment took place almost 2,500 miles away.
“A bunch of people down there told me I was good and I was surprised. Soccer is not something Americans are known for, so I think they were surprised. That moment sparked something in me, and I realized it was bigger than the game itself.” – Lexie Bloyder on rediscovering her love for soccer in Honduras.
On July 5, 2015, Carli Lloyd scored a hat trick to lead the United States Women’s National Team to its third World Cup title and first since 1999. “I thought that was so cool,” Bloyder said. “That is probably the moment I knew I wanted to go play college soccer and go on to a higher level.”
Then a sophomore at West High, Bloyder spent the next year concentrating all of her energy on pursuing a career at the collegiate level. She played for the Rocky Mountain Football Club traveling team that visited showcase tournaments across the Western U.S., putting her skills on display for coaches at a variety of levels. “That was a really cool experience – sometimes I’d show up to tournaments and I’d be playing with girls I had never met before,” said Bloyder. “All of us had the focus of getting recruited, and you just hoped you had a good enough game that a coach would be interested in you.”
Bloyder was doing everything right in the recruiting process, and seemed to be on the right path to wind up on a college roster somewhere in the fall of 2018. But after a difficult junior year her passion for the game faded and she began to reconsider if continuing her career was what she truly wanted. “I had a tough junior season and I didn’t enjoy soccer as much,” Bloyder said. “I wanted to look into other things, and I decided not to play college soccer. I went through my whole junior year and didn’t play very many tournaments.”
Then came Bloyder’s first venture outside of the United States. “I had no expectations going into it, but it was very eye-opening,” she said referring to a 12-day mission trip to Honduras during the summer of 2017. “It showed me how simple and happy life can be.”
Bloyder’s mission was to help a local church build housing on government-owned land to provide suitable living conditions for around 500 refugees. Along with a group of high-school friends, Bloyder received a crash course in cement mixing, laying rebar, and ultimately constructing a livable building all in the span of 10 days. “Seeing how little they had brought a new perspective to me, and they were so eager to help,” Bloyder said.
Bloyder’s group labored by day, working diligently to provide whatever assistance they could towards completing the housing against their deadline. But when nightfall arrived, it was time to play.
“We had two American teams and three other teams with local players,” Bloyder said referring to the three nights of pickup soccer games she played in. “Sometimes we would mix it up and play with each other – they wanted to see how we would play.”
Players leapt onto the field a la hockey line changes while the din of conversation and laughter from spectators sitting around the middle section brought the spectacle to life. It was in a concrete pit, gently covered by torn-up turf and surrounded by walls with goals cut out, that Bloyder rediscovered her love for the game. “It was a community thing,” Bloyder reflected on the experience. “There was no out-of-bounds – you just played on. There was one light per field, and it was super humid down there. By the end of it you were drenched in sweat. It was a lot of fun.”
She was the most experienced soccer player among her group – most had never played the sport before. Under the dimly lit playing surface, much to the surprise of the locals, Bloyder shined brightest. It may have been the goal Bloyder scored that got the locals buzzing about her skill, but it was the comprehensive experience that lit an inner fire and altered her mindset upon her return to Billings. “That shifted my perspective going into my senior year,” said Bloyder. “I wanted to enjoy myself and my teammates, and after my senior season was over I decided I didn’t want it to be over.”
HARDLY A ROCKY START
“My whole freshman year I was very humbled, and I didn’t even know I was going to get the opportunity to play college soccer. I was thankful to get minutes in any game.” – Lexie Bloyder on her freshman season in 2018.
To say Bloyder was overwhelmed at the outset of her collegiate career would be an understatement. From her first training session as a freshman in the fall of 2018, Bloyder had to battle against the notion that because she was from Montana and didn’t have the experience or exposure of players from states like Washington, that she was a rung below.
Much of that self doubt went out the window when Bloyder scored in her first collegiate match, in a 5-1 blowout victory over crosstown rival Rocky Mountain College. “I was shocked to even get time on the field,” Bloyder recounted when asked if she felt prepared for her freshman season. “My expectations coming into college – I prepared myself to not see the field at all.”
Cavallo, who was in his second season at the helm of the women’s program, had a different outlook on Bloyder – a player whom he had been familiar with for years as she developed through Billings’ youth soccer scene. “In 2018 I remember telling her that I see some Jordan Devoto in her,” Cavallo said, referencing the 2018 captain from Wilsall. “I remember her saying, ‘wow, that is quite a compliment.’ Some players just have that desire to be their best.”
It’s easy to draw parallels between Bloyder and Devoto – the latter went from 15 minutes of playing time as a freshman in 2015 to starting all 17 matches and being named team captain as a senior in 2018. In Bloyder’s eyes, seeing the success of another small-town Montanan at the collegiate level made Devoto an idol. “We played the same position my freshman year, and she was so supportive in every aspect,” said Bloyder. “Playing wise, but also understanding being a college athlete from Montana and how intimidating that can be. She took me under her wing my freshman year, and even though we only played together for three months to this day I would consider her a great friend and mentor.”
Bloyder played in all 17 matches that year and scored one more time – the game-winner in a wild, 4-3 win over Providence. By the time her sophomore season arrived, Bloyder was in a groove and moved into the starting lineup. She scored back-to-back game-winning goals in the fall of 2019, including a memorable finish in MSUB’s 1-0 win over Western Oregon on Sept. 26 – her first GNAC tally. “Looking back I regret it just a little bit, because I didn’t have that mentality like I belonged on the field and that I could make an impact for the team until my sophomore year,” Bloyder said. “My mind started shifting towards how I could get better as a player. Sophomore year was really big for me, getting a lot of playing time and focusing on my fitness and improving.”
GROWTH SPURNED BY LOST SEASON
“The summer leading into it was one of the hardest-working summers I had. When the season was canceled, the mentality just sank. The letdown was tough.” – Lexie Bloyder on the canceled 2020 season.
Bloyder found new limits with her conditioning and workouts during the summer of 2020, determined to hit the pitch in the best shape of her life heading into what would have been her junior season. “I pushed hard with soccer and fitness, and I used it as a coping mechanism with the whole pandemic,” Bloyder said. “I was super excited for my junior year, and I put in so much preparation for it. Then August rolled around and we found out the season was canceled. It was really hard.”
While college athletes everywhere held out hope that the pandemic would be contained enough for a 2020 fall season to be played, the harsh reality that there would be no soccer was tough for Bloyder to accept. On top of having to cope with the loss of her season, Bloyder was newly fitted into her role as an upperclassman captain and team leader for players breaking into the college game at an unprecedented time. “It was a big growing moment for me, because I was trying to navigate my way through leading the team while also navigating my own emotions and what was going on,” said Bloyder. “The coaching staff was very patient with me, and I am thankful for that. The games we had last year are what kept me on track. We didn’t get a GNAC season, but to me as a competitor a game is a game and regardless of who the opponent was, I was so happy to go out with the team and compete.”
The Yellowjackets made the most of the interrupted season with nine matches during the spring of 2021, with Bloyder scoring a pair of goals and starting all nine games. She has gone on to start all 15 matches this fall for a total of 24 straight starts, while accumulating six career goals and a pair of assists in her 57 matches played.
Not only has Bloyder continued to deliver when the team needs it most – four of her career goals have been game-winners – she has done so while adapting to a variety of positions including most recently moving to outside back at the outset of the 2021 season. “Going game to game, she has played wherever we have needed her to,” said Cavallo. “She is willing to do anything for the team, and will step up and play anywhere. As a senior now, it’s not just what she is doing on the field, but everything she is doing to prepare herself mentally and physically to be at her best that stands out. She walks the walk.”
Bloyder and her youngest sister Ella, who is a junior at West High School, have relied on one another this season both playing the right back position. “It has been fun to talk about the position with her and to go watch some of her games,” Bloyder said. “She is my younger sister, but she has also played the position a lot longer than me. We give each other a lot of advice.”
Bloyder’s family has been her biggest support system, with her older sister Mikayla graduating from Carroll College in 2019 after a career pole vaulting on the track and field team, and her younger sister Delaney a freshman at Rocky this fall. Bloyder cited the unwavering support of her parents Joe and Shannon for allowing her the freedom to lay out and navigate her college career. “I am thankful for them, because they have kept me so grounded and reminded me that soccer is an amazing opportunity,” Bloyder commented on her parents. “My three sisters have played the same role as my parents. At the end of the day, they don’t view me as just a soccer player. It is so easy for athletes to get caught up in their sport being their identity. I am thankful for the people in my life who see me for who I am as a person.”
Bloyder earned academic all-GNAC for the third time in her career this fall, as she has maintained a 3.71 grade point average while completing her degree in communications. She is on track to graduate in the spring and indicated she feels she has gotten the most out of her education at MSUB. “My adviser Melissa Boehm has been great, and has really mentored me in certain career paths. She is a professor who has made an impact on me,” said Bloyder. “Sam Boerboom is one of my favorite teachers, because his courses are so full of information and knowledge. He is a phenomenal teacher because he presents everything to the class and lets us form our own opinions and conclusions.”
LEADING THE MAGIC CITY SOCCER MOVEMENT
“Our team having five Billings girls can show other girls in the state it’s possible to play at a competitive level. Just because you’re from a small town, it doesn’t define who you are as a player.” – Lexie Bloyder on the thriving local talent on MSUB’s team.
No one in MSUB’s program has played soccer in Billings longer than Bloyder, who is the eldest of five local players on the roster. The freshman quartet of Taylor Gertsch, Hailee Gertsch, Jordan Roe, and Jillian Hust all looked to Bloyder for leadership breaking into the program during the fall of 2019. The former three opposed Bloyder throughout their years at Billings Skyview High School, while Hust and Bloyder were teammates for one season at Billings West High School during the 2017-18 school year.
“The club team here has done a great job of improving, and the people in charge want to make Billings a strong soccer community,” said Bloyder, who remains involved as a coach with her former local club team. “During my recruiting process, there were about three girls in the whole state who played college soccer. Now it seems like there are three girls per high school team. The talent and exposure here has grown a lot, and Montana girls being able to play college soccer is something I hope I can leave as a legacy.”
While Bloyder and the local talent have paved the way for the youth program in Billings to continue improving, the ‘Jackets are on their way to posting their best overall record since the outset of Bloyder’s career in 2018. “This is the most talented team I have been on here,” Bloyder said on the 2021 squad. “Everyone here is tactically sound, which gives us an edge. Hopefully we can instill into the girls on the team that we are right there and we are just as talented as a lot of the teams we have lost to. We have all the right pieces – the mindset, the competitiveness, and the technical ability – and it is all about assembling them.”
LEAVING IT ALL ON THE FIELD
“Lexie has taken zero shortcuts. She has stayed healthy and fit because of the extra work she puts in. The younger players can look to a captain like Lexie and see someone who is doing all the little things right to make herself the best she can be for the team.” – Stephen Cavallo on Lexie Bloyder.
While Bloyder had the option of returning for a fifth year in the fall of 2022, she made the decision in the summer of 2021 that this fall would be her final collegiate season. “I just felt that it was time to look towards the future, and start to prioritize that,” said Bloyder. “The whole summer I mentally prepared for it to be my last season. My training and effort increased because of that.”
“Lexie has done everything we have ever asked of her, and I am very proud of her,” Cavallo said. “I have the utmost confidence she is going to be successful in whatever she undertakes in life. I have absolutely loved coaching her for four years.”
Bloyder was quick to point out that her growth as an individual and player was fostered by the culture laid out by Cavallo, the program’s fifth-year head coach. “He cares about us as people more than anything else,” Bloyder said. “He asks us as captains to challenge the coaches and give input, and it is so important to have a coach who wants to continue to grow. One of the things I am most grateful for is having a coach who pushed me to grow as a person. Ultimately, that’s what I wanted to get out of playing a college sport.”
When Bloyder laces up her cleats at Yellowjacket Field for her final career match in her hometown on Saturday, 15 years’ worth of soccer memories will undoubtedly flood her mind. Amend Park buzzing with youth players during the annual Magic City Memorial Day tournament and competing in MSUB’s annual indoor soccer tournament during her middle school years are some of her fondest early memories. Rediscovering her passion for the game while volunteering for a cause the farthest from home she has ever been in Honduras will rush back.
As she reflects on what the last four years have meant to her, so will her teammates, coaches and family on what she has meant to them. Considering it’s a collegiate career that may have never happened, the Yellowjackets received all they could have asked for and more from Bloyder.