As the soccer ball rocketed through the air towards the goal, Ben Bakke only had a split second to think, “That’s going in.” The soccer ball was knuckling into the bottom right corner of the goal and the sensors inside the mechanical goalkeeper were having difficulty reacting fast enough to Bakke’s perfectly aimed shot with laser-like precision of his own. And then the ball hit the net and everything became a blur.
The real story started a little over a week before Bakke’s kick found the back of the net. Bakke, a senior defender on Wheaton’s men’s soccer team, was back in his hometown of Minneapolis, Minn. for a few weeks of Christmas break.
Visiting the Mall of America with his girlfriend, Wheaton junior Frances Hoekstra, the couple went to explore the new Smaaash Mall of America exhibit. The three a’s, of course, represent Smaaash’s tagline: “America’s Adrenaline Arena.” Known for their virtual reality games, Smaaash was offering a new game this holiday season called the Super Keeper.
In the game, the contestant is given the opportunity to take eight shots on goal. If he or she makes five in a row, then the contestant wins a 2017 Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Sounds easy, right?
Now come the challenging parts. The soccer goal is about 12 feet by 6 feet and the keeper is mechanical. Sensors are lined on each side of the miniature field, as well as on the posts and crossbar of the goal and the goalie itself. All of these sensors feed back to the robotic goalie, telling it whether to slide left, right or stay in the center. As if that’s not hard enough, the goal only counts if the shot does not touch the goalie, crossbar or posts. It has to go straight in.
Back to Bakke and Hoekstra. For $10, he got two chances at eight shots for a total of 16. Completely unprepared for the game, Bakke had to shoot all 16 shots barefooted since his shoes would have come flying off had he kept them on. Still, even with his feet turning red, he managed to make three straight shots twice. He tried one more time and made four shots as blisters began appearing on his soles.
Bakke thought that he would be able to make five straight if given one more chance, yet the pair had to attend a dinner with Hoekstra’s family so they left. Still, the bitter taste of knowing that a Harley-Davidson motorcycle was right outside his grasp stayed with him for the following few days.
This game was almost tailor-made for Bakke’s abilities. He has an incredibly powerful shot that he can aim with pin-point accuracy and consistency, garnered from years of practice and experience at both the Division I soccer level, as well as for Wheaton’s own team. Bakke was a key cog in the middle of the field for the 2014 men’s soccer team that finished the season as the Runner-Up National Champions.
“Usually with those games, you have to get lucky, but that was a skill-based game so it wasn’t like, ‘Oh I did really well the first day because I was having a good day,’” Bakke explained. “I just kept thinking, ‘I could do that any day. Eventually I’ll just get lucky and make that final one.’”
The following week, Bakke, Wheaton senior James Goth and friend Connor Erlandson returned to rematch the Super Keeper.
“The first time I went up, I didn’t make too many in a row,” Bakke explained. “I just tried out a few different angles and then I was like, ‘Okay, I got this.’”
Much better prepared this time with actual shoes, Bakke hit his first three. By this point, the people in charge of the game had to momentarily stop Bakke in order to call over security and management to double-check for the legitimacy of his last two shots. This was not only smart by the game’s makers for legal reasons, but also due to the fact that the gap in time got the contestant out of rhythm.
“It had thrown me off in the past,” Bakke said, “but this time I was much better prepared for it since I knew what was going to happen.”
Unfazed, Bakke calmly stepped up and made his fourth shot as well. Now he was back in rhythm and had little doubt that his fifth one would ripple the nets with one fell swoop of his right leg. He stepped up, placed the ball and took a few steps to the side of the ball. Since there was a barrier not too far behind the place where the ball had to be, contestants couldn’t run up and kick the ball.
Bakke lined up to the side of the ball in order to generate enough force behind the ball. And now, back to where this article originally began, with the ball in mid-flight hurtling past the mechanical keeper’s reach.
“When I kicked the fifth one, I actually hit it the worst and was kind of worried because it wasn’t as in the corner as the other ones,” said Bakke. “I guess I just hit it so hard that the goalie’s sensors couldn’t move it in time.”
Seeing the ball find the back of the net, Bakke took two steps forward with his right fist pumping the air — a classic Bakke celebration that any Thunder soccer fan would recognize. Speaking of the Thunder, how did a mechanical, sensor-ladened goalkeeper compare to Wheaton’s own?
“It was actually easier than shooting on the Wheaton keepers because the sensors don’t remember where you go,” explained Bakke. “I could just go to the same place every time.”
Four weeks later, Bakke finally received his motorcycle — a black 2017 Harley-Davidson — just as promised. In fact, NBA rising phenom Karl-Anthony Towns was the one to present the keys to Bakke’s father, who was accepting the motorcycle on Bakke’s behalf.
Furthermore, the game’s other winner who also accepted a key at the same time was an ex-professional soccer player from Mexico’s First Division, the top level of Mexican soccer. Not too shabby for a 22-year-old playing Division III soccer.
Bakke’s constantly analytical mind keeps the story from having a “fairytale” ending of him and Hoekstra riding off into the sunset on the back of an all-black Harley. As is his nature, Bakke naturally found the smartest option for the motorcycle and lept at the chance to make a nice profit.
“If I had enough money and could keep it as a toy, then I might keep it,” he explained. “But I just don’t have that luxury of justifying keeping it. I would rather get a car than a Harley since I could only ride the Harley for three months the year.”
Bakke also forced the Super Keeper’s owners to change their strategy. Before the entire Wheaton soccer team showed up to win 30 Harleys, the game’s new rule is that contestants must score seven in a row.
Unable to make it to the Division III tournament this past season with the Thunder, Bakke proved he still had a little left in the tank after four years of playing. Some soccer alumni hang up the cleats after their senior season, some begin playing in pick-up leagues and some play professionally.
And yet others win Harley-Davidsons. As his friends regularly comment, “Only Bakke.”