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After his performance in the shootout clinched Bettendorf its third straight state tournament berth, senior goalkeeper Micah Poole sought out head coach Ben Pennington.

"When he came up to congratulate us, I hugged him and said, 'That was for you Coach,'" Poole said. "I think it's pretty special."

With Saturday's win over Pleasant Valley, Pennington has now taken 20 Bettendorf teams to the state tournament, joining West Des Moines Valley's Aziz Haffar as the only two coaches in Iowa history to reach that mark.

It's a legacy the Bulldogs don't take lightly heading into their Class 3A state quarterfinal match against Urbandale on Thursday at 5:05 p.m. at Cownie Soccer Park in Des Moines.

"It's definitely cool to be a part of history like that," junior Joe Byrne said. "We're not just another team, like No. 16 or No. 19. ... We're trying to make the 20th one a special one."

The Bulldogs won the first spring state championship in Iowa history in 1995 and since then have won two more titles and finished second four times. Even Pennington can't believe where his career with the Bulldogs has gone.

"I thought in 1995, career-wise, I'd coach a couple more years and then go into administration," said Pennington, who is in his 38th season at Bettendorf. "I remember my wife and I had a conversation one time, I think it was in 1998 and we had lost in the championship. My wife said, 'You and I know you could have great teams that never get back to this level again.' And we've managed to.

"Twenty sounds nice. It feels like you've been a part of a community."

For the longest time, it seemed like Bettendorf would never miss the state tournament, making a record 16 straight from 1995-2010. There was a one-year gap before the Bulldogs returned in 2012, but that was followed by four years away.

That hiatus makes this latest run a little bit sweeter.

"It ate away at us," Pennington said. "You take a look at what's going wrong and there really isn't anything going wrong because a couple of those (substate final) losses were in overtime. ... Those teams were so competitive."

Pennington is like an encyclopedia when it comes to soccer, able to conjure up the names of former players like Pat Angerer and Tim Jackson, members of Bettendorf's last championship team in 2004. He's also quick to remember the moments of exhilaration and heartbreak that have come over the years, and impart that knowledge to all the players that have come through the program.

"It's an honor to be playing under Penn with that legacy," said senior Ian Silva, who leads the team with 12 assists and is third with seven goals. "Just don't give up, that's what I've learned (from Pennington). Don't get frustrated with anyone, just keep looking forward."

That determination was key for this team's state tournament run. There was a feeling at certain points this season that this team might not be ready for another trip to Des Moines.

Not after graduating 12 seniors from last year's state runner-up team. Not after losing junior defender Parker Beck to a knee injury before the start of the season. Not after losing a 3-0 game to rival Pleasant Valley in the third game of the season.

But instead of resigning themselves to the fact that maybe this just wasn't going to be their year, the Bulldogs rallied together, going 10-1 down the stretch, outscoring teams 45-2 in that span and avenging that loss to the Spartans 1-0 in a shootout in Saturday's substate final.

"We had to self-analyze and see where we were and refocus on what we needed to do to play at a high level," Byrne said. "Penn's had these situations before, had teams that had a bunch of multi-sport athletes, weren't supposed to do anything and ended up in state semifinals.

"It's tradition and it's the hard work in the weight room and the multi-sport guys. We're in there nine months before the season starts and then two times a week during the season. It instills a hard work ethic in you and you learn to never give up and never quit on anything."

This senior class has helped the Bulldogs finish third two years ago and second last year, so they're hoping this year they can take that last step.

"We're calling it 'Operation 3-2-1,'" Poole said. "We're trying to get the first place win for Pennington this year in his 20th trip to state which I think would be pretty cool for him. He has a lot of experience going to the state tournament. He knows what it takes to win, he knows how to get the best out of us."

No matter how this run ends this weekend, Pennington expects to be back next year. Now 66, he's not sure how many more years he'll be coaching, but for right now, there's no end in sight.

"I don't want to be a person that just keeps hanging around." he said. "I think I fulfill a purpose in these kid's lives, maybe not they way they wanted but it gives me a perspective. ... It's a wonderful place to coach."

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