Fort Lewis College 6, Lynn University 4. Despite being 14 years removed from that famous 10-point goal-fest of a scoreline in the NCAA Division II Men’s Soccer Championship semifinal, it was the game that changed everything for the Fort Lewis College men’s soccer program, as well as its most famous head coach, Jeremy Gunn.
Gunn has been involved in countless win-or-go home scenarios since leaving FLC after the 2006 season, serving as head coach at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and will soon begin his eighth season as The Knowles Family Director of Men’s Soccer with Stanford University. He became successful at winning big matches with Fort Lewis, but turned it into an art at Stanford, where he was the mastermind behind winning three consecutive NCAA College Cups from 2014-17, transforming the Cardinal into the premier college program. Gunn said the 2005 semifinal still takes the lot.
The memory of that semifinal game and countless others was remembered when both Gunn and the team that went on to win the 2005 national championship were inducted into the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Hall of Fame Friday night in Colorado Springs.
“It literally was the most ridiculous competition I’ve ever been a part of, it was the ultimate back-and-forth game,” Gunn said Thursday in an interview with The Durango Herald. “Absolutely electrifying, and so, those were those different moments that really stood out in my mind for when you think back to that incredible run that year.”
The perfect balanceThe Skyhawks went 22-0-1 that season, culminating in a 3-1 championship-clinching win over Franklin Pierce University, but there were plenty of matches that became instant classics and were added to the lore of the program, including a dramatic 3-2 quarterfinal win over California State-Dominguez that featured a fight between the two sides and ultimately brought drastic changes to Dirks Field, and the fan-viewing experience.
The Skyhawks won 17 consecutive matches en route to the championship, which included 14 clean sheets from goalkeeper and Durango High School product Nick Clark, who now holds the second-most shutouts in program history with 29. John Cunliffe’s prowess for finding the back of the net was uncanny, as he became the all-time program leader in total points with 212, scoring 75 goals and had 62 assists.
While the players were talented, Gunn brought in two key influences, the late Andy McDermid, an assistant coach, who coached the youth academy at Arsenal Football Club in London, and a sports psychologist, Dr. Dan Freigang, who helped Gunn look beyond the formations and tactics of the game.
“I think that group were truly special in the journey we went on,” Gunn said. “I had inherited a fantastic program from my predecessor, Jeremy Fishbein, and we did really, really well. There was a bit of a dip, but we re-grouped and it started again with the group that wound up winning a national championship. It was just a remarkable journey that went truly from start to finish. With all of the groups I had the pleasure of coaching at Fort Lewis, it was the personalty and character of the group that made them really special. We had a wonderful balance between attacking and defending, and a wonderful balance between the humility and swagger.”
Bryan Eisenbraun, the captain from that year, said he is looking forward to seeing old teammates and even a few new members of the extended Skyhawks family.
“We were inducted into the 2015 Fort Lewis Hall of Fame, and that was really special because all of the guys from that team came back to Durango to celebrate,” Eisenbraun said. “I think it won’t be too different this time around; it’ll be a family reunion, and that’s the really exciting part of it all, ceremony and all. It’ll be fun to get together with everybody again. I am looking forward to seeing how the guys have grown. I know my kids have gotten four years older, plus some of the boys got married and some are dads now. I’m excited to see how big the extended family will get.”
Changing tidesEisenbraun, now a senior financial analyst with Osprey Packs in Cortez, pointed out that the 2005 team helped shape soccer in Durango forever. The Skyhawks had made the NCAA Division II tournament five times before 2005, which included runners-up in Gunn’s first season in charge, 1999. In 2005, the Skyhawks were beaming with confidence with a rugged back line, stout goalkeeping, pacey midfielders and a ruthless attack – it seemed destined that Fort Lewis would break through and win its first championship in program history.
“I remember saying to the Herald in one of the first pre-season interviews, ‘National championship or bust,’” Eisenbraun said. “That was the expectation. If you look back at the 2004 season, there were two losses that really stuck with us. It was a loss to CSU-Pueblo in the RMAC semifinals ... and a loss to Incarnate Word in the Round of 16 in the NCAAs. Those two losses were the defining moments that spurred us on for 2005.”
Durango became one of the hotbeds for college soccer in America. With over 2,000 people draped over the fences, behind the team benches and filling every corner of the stadium, Dirks Field became a fortress for the Fort. The Skyhawks led the nation in attendance for Division II men’s soccer in 2005 and 2006.
“You hear people talk about the 12th man in Seattle, Portland or whatever, but the reason why people talk about it so much is because it’s absolutely true,” Eisenbraun said. “It’s like going into a fight knowing you’ve got two or three thousand people ready to jump in at a moment’s notice, and playing at Dirks was like that. It gives me butterflies just thinking about it. The excitement that I had on a Friday, or even more so on Sunday, knowing I got to play in front of that many people, all of whom came to enjoy themselves, I’ll never experience anything like that again.”
The community support reached unprecedented levels, and while the players became local heroes, and booster Martin Dirks helped pave the way for the program by upgrading locker rooms and the scoreboard, new turf and other areas of the field, at the heart of it all was Gunn.
“We had some very, very good players, but minus Jeremy Gunn, it’s almost inconceivable that any of it was achieved,” Eisenbraun said. “I’ve never been with a coach that cared that much about a program ... He literally watered the field, and he literally slept in his office, he literally planted sod and he literally sorted through the relationship with Martin Dirks and finalized that. There’s no piece of the program – even as it exists today – that doesn’t have Jeremy’s fingerprints on it. He looked at every detail, and that’s how that team worked.”
From the ultimate drama of that famed 6-4 semifinal win, to helping put together program building blocks that have since risen to pillars, the 2005 team will always have its place in Durango history.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of many great teams with many great people, but the Fort Lewis group absolutely stood alone in how it captured the imagination of an entire community,” Gunn said.
“Durango is a smaller area, so you have a bigger influence over the community. Our student-athletes were not only amazing soccer players but amazing role models for the community. It’s the standalone situation where I think, when you have the term, ‘It takes a village,’ I think that saying couldn’t be more apt for that situation. None of the on-field success would have happened without the tremendous, tireless work, and wonderful love and support from the community.
“I have to give a huge thank you from the bottom of my heart for each every person that put in the work and gave us the support to create something so special.”