Rams, Titans set for 3A state playoff opening-round matchups
Coming off of two terrific regular seasons that saw the Coal Ridge Titans boys soccer team win its first 3A Western Slope League championship since 2013, and the Roaring Fork Rams boys soccer team come in third, the two local schools now turn their sights to the big stage that is the 3A Colorado High School Activities Association’s state playoffs, starting Thursday afternoon.
Finishing the regular season with a 12-2-1 (7-1 3A WSL) record to win the league championship, the Titans enter the 3A state playoff bracket as the No. 15 seed, where they’ll take on No. 18 The Pinnacle Timberwolves Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m. at The Pasture in New Castle. After a few years of playing back-to-back games in the first two rounds of the bracket, the 3A state playoffs will resemble more of 4A and 5A this fall as the first game will be played on Thursday — all in separate locations based on the higher seed in the matchups — before the second round would commence on the following Tuesday, giving each team a nice break from action, leveling the playing field — sort of.
“It all depends on how you look at it [the new format],” Coal Ridge Head Coach Michael Mikalakis said. “I think one of the things that really helps our team is that we’re in great shape, and so when we play two games in a row, it doesn’t really impact us as much. But I do think it hurts a lot of other teams in the playoffs. It’s a toss up on if it’s better for the playoffs or not. There are certainly positives and negatives to it, so we’ll see.”
The Timberwolves ride into town with a 10-3-2 record on the season, placing second in the 3A Frontier League behind No. 7 seed The Academy. The Pinnacle averaged 2.9 goals scored per game during the regular season, while allowing just 1.0 goals per game as goalkeeper Saul Olmos stopped nearly eight shots per game in net for the Timberwolves. Junior forward Raul Loya led the Timberwolves in goals with 18 on the season.
While the stat sheets and the roster are one thing to go off of when preparing for a playoff opponent, Mikalakis said the important thing for his group is to play every game like they’re playing Kent Denver, which has won the 3A state championship three years in a row.
“It doesn’t matter record-wise, it doesn’t matter seeding-wise because when you come to the big dance you need to make sure you’re showing up,” Mikalakis said.
Coming into the year, the Titans lost a large majority of their starting unit, which led to Mikalakis not knowing what to expect from such a young group this fall. But in typical Titan fashion, the program rolled right along, winning its first league title since 2013 on the last day of the season, thanks to a Roaring Fork win over Delta in overtime. Dating back to the start of the season, the young Titans worked through some early-season kinks and now seem to have hit their stride when it matters most, which could set them up for a deep playoff run.
“What I’m really happy with this group is the growth we’ve seen throughout the year,” Mikalakis said. “If you look at the scores and the schedule with the results, we’ve really grown as a program. I think that’s been evident in big games against good programs like Roaring Fork — they’re a heck of a club; we played them really strong. I’m proud of the results we’ve had and the league title. And I’m very proud of the kids because of the work they put in. They put the work in, but they showed up in the games they absolutely needed to show up in. Games like Aspen and Roaring Fork; I’m really just happy with the growth of the program.”
Should the Titans get past the Timberwolves in round 1 at home, Coal Ridge will go on the road next Tuesday for a tough matchup with No. 2 Kent Denver, which ended the Titans’ season last fall in a dramatic 2-1 decision in overtime of the third round. Considering the Sun Devils knocked out the Titans last fall, there’s a chance the young Coal Ridge group could look past The Pinnacle on the bracket and have their sights set on Kent Denver. But Mikalakis has other plans when it comes to tackling the challenge of keeping the group focused on the task in front of them.
“I think that’s one of the hardest things coachingwise and team-wise to do because we have such a storied history with Kent Denver,” Mikalakis said. “Looking at it, if we beat The Pinnacle, we see Kent Denver again, and the kids get really excited about those games where we have something we can prove. How do I get them back? I have an adage that I use every year: After every game we say two things — enjoy the win, and move on. We look at it one game at a time, and the game we just played or the game coming up doesn’t matter except for the game right in front of us. The kids know the most important game is the one we’re going to play on the pitch for the next 80 minutes.”
As the Titans get set to host the Timberwolves Thursday, the No. 23 Roaring Fork Rams have to hit the road to Aurora Thursday afternoon to take on the No. 10 Aurora West College Prep Academy Spartans. Despite coming in at No. 23 this fall in the 3A bracket, the Rams came up painfully short in a bid to win the 3A Western Slope League title, dropping a tough 4-3 decision on the road last week to Coal Ridge, which all but sank their title hopes. But the young Rams bounced back last Friday, ending the Delta Panthers’ 3A WSL title bid in a 2-1 thrilling overtime win. Now, the Rams have to go about their bid for a 3A state title by hitting the road, starting with the 11-3-1 (4-1 3A Confluence League) Spartans.
On the year the Spartans averaged 3.7 goals scored per game, allowing just 1.4 goals per game. Offensively, the Spartans appear to run through sophomores Christian Juarez and Brayam Raygoza, who scored 15 and 10 goals, respectively, while leading the Spartans to a second-place finish in the 3A Confluence League behind No. 22 Eagle Ridge Academy.
“I don’t know much about them outside of the stats and roster that they have on Max Preps, but I know that they’re a pretty young team, mostly sophomores,” Roaring Fork Head Coach Nick Forbes said. “But we’ve shown we can hang with teams that tough. We only lost to an own goal against Colorado Academy last year in a 1-0 decision, so we’re coming in with a lot of confidence knowing that we can play our game and show what we’re made of. Any time you face those Front Range teams, you have to be more disciplined in how you approach those games, meaning it has to be more of a collective effort than just relying on individual players to make something happen. So we’re been working on that and preparing for a high pressure game. It’s been a long season, so keeping the focus is the main priority right now.”
The Rams and Spartans will kick off Thursday at 4 p.m. in Aurora.
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Senior quarterback/safety/punt returner Trey Caldwell used his legs to make up for some mistakes Rifle football made on Friday night and momentarily kept their hopes for a 2A state title alive.