Coal Ridge soccer headed to state championship

Jaymin Kanzer
For the Post Independent
Coal Ridge soccer poses for a team photo after winning the 3A state playoff semifinal game against Rifle on Wednesday.
Jeremy Hesier/Courtesy

Titans senior Zion Williams nets a penalty kick. Senior teammate Alexis Serna heads one in the 62nd minute. Coal Ridge punches its ticket to the 3A state championship.

The Western Slope played a heavy role in painting the 3A Boys Soccer playoffs bracket as Coal Ridge overcame a one-goal deficit to best Rifle in the semifinals Wednesday night. The Titans hung on to win 2-1 amid a clear, 40-degree night at Jackson Stadium at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

No. 15 Coal Ridge, with last season’s 2-1 semifinal loss to Peak to Peak still fresh in their minds, now faces defending 3A state champions Colorado Academy. The game is slated for noon Saturday at Switchbacks’ Winder Field in Colorado Springs.

“A lot of these kids had the experience in the final four last year,” head coach Michael Mikalakis said of his team. “They knew what they had to do to prevail. They have a lot of belief in themselves, and they have shown it in this playoff run. They have proven they deserve to be where they are and to play for a championship.”

But Wednesday’s win wasn’t easy.

Rifle, which beat Coal Ridge 1-0 in the regular season, threw its weight around in the first half. Junior Eduardo Espino manufactured three scoring chances in the first 10 minutes of the game. But the Titans soon controlled the ball with a very methodical and calculated attack throughout the first half. 

The first real scoring chance appeared in favor of the Titans when sophomore Peter Ortiz Barcenas put up a ball in the 18th minute from deep. Junior Bears goalkeeper Jefferson Torres played it amazingly with a perfectly timed diving punch, redirecting the ball over the net and keeping the Titans off the board. 

Coal Ridge kept their steady attack, marching along and controlling possession throughout most of the game, but the Bears were first to draw blood in the 36th minute. A botched goal kick bounced around at midfield before Rifle took possession. Then a volley brigade began just north of midfield. Three Bears players played keep away without letting the ball hit the ground before Espino attacked the ball out of midair from 18 feet out — beating the goalkeeper and putting Rifle ahead with time dwindling in the first half. 

Things kept getting worse for the Titans as the sophomore Giovanni Parker got a booking and was shown a yellow card with just three minutes left in the half. 

“We stopped playing our style of soccer,” Mikalakis said to the team at halftime. “We played theirs, and that’s why they scored. The boys came out the second half and played our game and did it fantastically.”

The Titans flipped the script in the second half, evening the score just five minutes in. An incredible counter-attack left Rifle completely outnumbered. A last-ditch effort from Rifle’s Yahir Marquez inside the penalty box was too much contact for the referee to let slide, and Williams would take the penalty shot.

Sending Torres the wrong way, Williams tied the game 1-1. 

People watch Coal Ridge soccer play Rifle in the 3A state playoffs during a viewing party at Coal Ridge High School on Wednesday.

The Titans had a different energy in the second half and were just waiting to explode for their second goal. It came just 15 minutes later on a beautiful set piece. The Bears’ physicality came back to bite them as a Coal Ridge free kick from midfield became the honey jar to Winnie the Pooh’s hand. Serna was the one to put the Titans ahead, as he went over the top and placed the ball in the back of the net with a masterful header in the 62nd minute. 

“It was absolutely surreal,” Serna said. “I lost my breath with relief. I can’t even describe what this means to me or this family.”

The Titans played keep away for the last 20 minutes of the game, and as the air horn sounded, the sizable Coal Ridge crowd erupted as the players rushed to celebrate with each other. It is the first state championship appearance of head coach Mikalakis’s tenure, which began in 2012. 

“I’m elated,” Mikalakis said. “I’ve been coaching a long time now. We’ve knocked on (the state championship) door a couple of times over these years but never been able to punch the ticket. We need to be able to rise to the opportunity, but these boys can fight with anyone, and I’m so proud of them.”

Rifle came into the game as the hottest team in the state. The No. 6 Bears hadn’t lost a game in over two months and hadn’t surrendered a goal since the first round of the playoffs. If any team will use this as motivation, it is the Bears led by Jonathan Espinoza.

“First and foremost, congrats to Mik and Coal Ridge,” Espinoza said after the loss. “We fought and had the intensity we needed to make a run. We played well and with a great mindset. There is a lot of future in this program.”

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