The Fort Lewis College men’s soccer team advanced to the semifinals of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Tournament in dramatic fashion.
Last-ditch defending and a goal from Loic Jean-Baptiste propelled the Skyhawks past rival Colorado Mesa 1-0 on Thursday in Grand Junction in the opening round of the tournament. The two teams previously had played to a pair of thrilling ties during the regular season.
The sixth-seeded Skyhawks (11-4-4) held on after they were outshot 24-7 in the game and 17-1 in the second half by the second-seed Mavericks.
Fort Lewis redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Peter Byrne made three fantastic saves in the second half, and Colorado Mesa had two goals that were called off by the referees, one for offsides and another when the ball was ruled out of bounds before a crossing pass led to a Mavericks score that would not count.
FLC head coach David Oberholtzer said it was a stressful second half of soccer but was proud to see the fight his team showed.
“We’ve talked all year about the camaraderie and togetherness of the group, and you saw it again tonight,” Oberholtzer said. “It certainly was not a good soccer performance from us by any means, but it was a gutsy performance in terms of the heart and grit that it took for us to stay in the lead. Some nights you’re not always performing at the level you want, but as long as we have an exceptional level of effort, attitude and focus, we’re going to be able to stay in the game.”
After a nervy opening 10 minutes, the Skyhawks were able to settle into the game through its wingers. With Jean-Baptiste’s shiftiness on the left and Ryan Lee’s pace on the right, FLC was able to create some solid chances. They had two corner kicks that were unsuccessful, and a free kick from Ty Lang was re-directed from Jean-Baptiste but went over the crossbar.
Jean-Baptiste opened the scoring in 30th minute. He received a pass and beat the Colorado Mesa’s RMAC Goalkeeper of the Year Brendan Brown, as he placed his shot into the bottom left corner for a 1-0 lead.
“Especially when talking about how we didn’t play our best soccer, we still always know that we can be dangerous at any moment,” Oberholtzer said. “Whether it’s Loic, Ryan Lee or Brantley Bice, there’s a number of guys that can score at the moment just because we have some really dangerous and dynamic attacking players. It was a great goal from Loic, and another big moment for him and our team.”
It was not all Skyhawks in the first half, as Mesa created a number of strong chances, and Byrne was forced to make a few tough saves for FLC. Mesa held a 7-6 shot advantage at halftime.
The Skyhawks were on their heels defending for the majority of the second half, as the Mavericks (10-5-3) created chance after chance in search of an equalizer. In the 75th minute, Mesa’s Lawan Abary thought he scored the game-tying goal, but it was waived off after a Maverick attacker was in an offside position. Abary had a shot the 80th minute that was cleared off of the goal line. In a frantic effort, Byrne covered the rebound but was kicked by Kevin Chavez, who was shown a yellow card. Byrne was down for a minute, but he stayed in the game.
Mesa had one last chance in the 87th minute, as Ramses Atahualpa cut in on the left side and aimed his shot low, but it was saved by Byrne. He finished with a game-high seven saves.
“We have the best goalkeeper in the conference,” Oberholtzer said.
FLC will be without senior left back Ty Lang, who was named to the All-RMAC Second Team on Thursday, after he was sent off with a red card for a dangerous challenge in the 76th minute. The Skyhawks were forced to play the final 14 minutes with just 10 men.
“After two draws against Mesa earlier in the year, we’re thrilled to come out on the right end by any means possible,” Oberholtzer said. “We’re excited to be moving on.”
The Skyhawks will play at Regis (10-6-2) in the semifinals at 1 p.m. Sunday in Denver.
In the other quarterfinal, the No. 4 seed Dixie State beat No. 5 Westminster 1-0 Thursday night in St. George. The Trailblazers won it on a free kick from Moises Medina from 31 yards out in the 83rd minute. Dixie State will travel to Golden for the semifinals to face No. 1 Colorado School of Mines on Sunday.
The Fort Lewis College women’s soccer team will look for an upset today, as The No. 7 seed Skyhawks (7-6-3) take on No. 2 seed Colorado School of Mines (15-2-1) in their RMAC Tournament quarterfinal matchup. Mines is ranked No. 16 in the nation in the latest United Soccer Coaches poll. Kickoff is at noon in Golden.