Titan girls soccer falls in state semifinals

“It was an amazing season”

By Than Acuff 

After flying through the first two rounds of the 2A state soccer tournament, the Crested Butte Titans girls soccer season came to an end in the semifinal match losing to the Flatirons Academy Bison 3-2 on Saturday, May 18.

The Titans outscored their opponents 13-0 through their first two games of the tournament but stepped into the deep end when they faced the number one team in the state in the semifinals.

Preparations for the big game were focused and on point in the week leading up as the coaching staff worked diligently to fine tune aspects of their game with a plan to slow down their opponent.

“We approached the week like we have for every game,” says head coach Tom Lewis. “Get reps in attacking and defending moments, getting our side of things down and working on some things that Flatirons does.”

“The team was ready to face the number one seed,” says senior captain Leigh Harpel. “We knew what we were up against.”

All the work over the past week, and the entire season, looked to come out in the opening 10 minutes of the game as the Titans, despite their young roster, appeared unfazed by the pressure of the situation and took immediate control of the game. Their initial push produced two quality looks on the Flatirons’ goal early and had the Bisons on their heels in the first four minutes of play and created a penalty kick opportunity seven minutes into the game when Harpel was tripped inside the 18-yard box.

Harpel drove the ball to the low corner on her penalty kick attempt, but the Flatirons goalie picked the correct side and pushed Harpel’s shot just wide of the post.

Flatirons regrouped looking to swing the game in their favor but the Titans back four of Dakota Redden, Rio Crabtree, Sawyer Ezzell and Summer Martin remained on task to stop the Flatirons attack while midfielders Harpel, Nora Thomes and Teagan Turner outplayed the Bison midfield.

“We came out strong wanting to get up early in the game and then they started making adjustments to how we were attacking,” says Harpel.

“There was no reason to panic,” adds Lewis. “The way we were playing, there was always a sense we were going to score.”

Flatirons then capitalized when a long high ball bounced between the center defenders and Titans’ goalie Bryce Haskell. Flatirons’ top speedy striker seized on the opportunity to collect the ball and tap it past Haskell for a 1-0 lead midway through the first half.

Crested Butte remained in control of possession as the game continued but struggled to get quality looks on the Bison net as the Flatirons defense was focused on denying Harpel and Molly Miller any open shots.

The Bison struck a second time as their speedy striker ran onto a long through ball to score again in the 25th minute for a 2-0 lead but Crested Butte remained focused on their possession style of play.

“It was definitely tough to be playing really strong and then rapidly get down two goals,” says Harpel. “But me and the attackers decided if we wanted to stay in the game, we needed to score before half which we were able to do.”

Their commitment would eventually pay off with five minutes left in the first half as Calla Fenlon collected a pass at the top of the 18-yard box from Harpel. After a couple of quick turns to hold the ball, Fenlon dished it off to Thomes and Thomes blasted it into the upper corner to close the gap heading into halftime.

“We faded a little bit when they went up 2-0 but that goal was big for us,” says Lewis. “It added some hope and showed that our midfield could score from distance. We believed we could outscore them and we reiterated that at halftime.”

“The goal at the end of the first half put us right back in the game,” adds Harpel. “We knew it would still be really hard, but we knew we could come back from a one goal difference.”

Crested Butte opened the second half pressing, led by the effort of Thomes and Martin in the middle. Flatirons came close to adding to their lead on a corner kick as the ball dropped in front of the Titans’ net and a Bison player got a touch on it, but Grace Bogard was in place to knock it from harm’s way. The Bison got a second look in the ensuing mayhem, but Haskell punched the ball clear of the post.

Three minutes later Flatirons Academy would add to their lead as a shot from the side looped over Haskell and into the net for a 3-1 lead.

“That was the most demoralizing goal of all three,” says Lewis. “It was one of the few times they got into our attacking third and they scored. We just had to reset, and we did.”

While down 3-1, there was still 30 minutes left in the game, but the Titans suffered two more setbacks as starters Redden and Paloma Lamar each had to leave the field with injuries. But, as a testament to the Titans’ depth, players were moved and called into action and Crested Butte continued to push looking to pull back in the game. 

Their late game push paid off when Madeline Fitzgerald stepped to a loose ball off a corner kick and hit a low shot on frame that slipped through the keeper’s hands and in with 13 minutes left.

“When a player that doesn’t usually score, scores, it adds some belief,” says Lewis. “That was a big confidence boost.”

While the Bison had slowly been slipping into a more defensive posture, with a slim one-goal lead and 13 minutes left in the game, they circled the wagons to hold onto their lead.

“They dropped into a low block and man-marked Leigh which was effective,” says Lewis. “It meant we had more bodies to go through.”

The Titans looked inside and on the flanks to try and find seams in Flatirons’ defense but with nine players packed in and defending, the Titans’ late game efforts were thwarted as they never found the equalizer and fell 3-2 ending their season.

“It was a bummer to lose for sure,” says Harpel. “We outplayed the other team and could have won on a different day. For some reason our shots just weren’t finding the back of the net and the other team adjusted their defense to make it extremely hard for us to catch up.” 

The Titans finished the year with a record of 14-3-1, 5-0 in league play and a league title. While falling short of their final preseason goal of winning the state title, the season was far from a disappointment for the Titans.

“It was an amazing season,” says Harpel. “I was nervous going into it with such a young team, but everyone grew immensely throughout the year and the team was a special one. We just kinda clicked and had some really amazing moments throughout the year and worked really hard to make it as far as we did. I’m really proud of this team and will always remember this special season.”

Furthermore, confidence is high moving forward as they lose just two seniors, Harpel and Ezzell, to graduation. While both were captains and Ezzell anchored the defense and Harpel led the team with 18 goals and 14 assists, the remaining starters return with others ready to step into key varsity roles, all with state tournament experience.

“It was a great experience for the underclassmen playing in that moment moving forward,” says Lewis. “There’s definitely a state title within these players. It could be next year, could be the year after that.”

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