Trying to reach their first final of the conference tournament since winning the championship in 2011, the Fort Lewis College men’s soccer team was stunned in the first half of a desired third matchup against No. 15 Colorado School of Mines.
After the two previous games against the Orediggers were decided by one goal, with Mines winning 1-0 in the closing minutes of double overtime and again 1-0 with a late second-half goal in the second, another close and low-scoring game could have been expected Friday in Grand Junction. But in the semifinal match of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament, it was an early goal by the Orediggers that unnerved the Skyhawks in what would become a 5-1 loss.
“We just didn’t play well, and they played really good. That’s it in a nutshell,” said FLC head coach David Oberholtzer. “We were slow to things. They were winning all the aerial battles, were first to second balls, and we were more or less passengers in the game.
“There’s no way to look at it where you could have seen some kind of lack of motivation or reason not to be up for the game. So that was disappointing. We would’ve liked to have seen a better effort from our group in general.”
FLC (5-3-1) looked to find creative ways past the big, stout Mines defense early on in the game. An opportunity on goal in the 12th minute was called back for offsides. Following the free kick, Mines (6-0-1) began to dominate possession.
In the 19th minute, Mines broke through with a goal from Ryan Wilson. He took a pass from Lucas King and was able to finish a shot past FLC goalkeeper Peter Byrne, a Second Team All-RMAC selection.
There was no indication Mines would sit back on defense after the initial goal, either. In the 29th minute, Azad Iliozer, who had a great chance at a goal moments earlier denied by a wonderful leg save from Byrne, would track down a pass played down the right sideline just before it rolled out of bounds. Iliozer played a strong crossing pass into the box, and the Skyhawks’ defense was unable to clear the danger away before Ian Kugler fired a shot into the top right of the goal past a helpless Byrne to make it 2-0.
Frustrated a bit after the second goal, the FLC defense and Byrne saw the game get completely away only one minute later. With the defense flat footed and confused, Iliozer marched his way down the field and finished a low rolling shot past Byrne that left the entire FLC team scratching its collective head with a 3-0 deficit.
“I think the frustration from Peter and the center backs came from the effort and lack of urgency from the rest of the group defensively,” Oberholtzer said. “Guys weren’t doing their jobs in terms of tracking players and being first to things. There was too much ball watching going on.”
The wheels were completely off at that point. Moments after FLC forward Ryan Lee limped off the field after being fouled in the FLC box, Mines had the ball back. Zane Sokolowski of Mines played a pass through the FLC defense to Chris Seery to set up a one-versus-one situation, and Seery beat Byrne to make it 4-0 before halftime.
In the 68th minute, Mines would make it 5-0 when Seery fed a pass to Baptiste Debuire, who finished his shot in the low corner past Byrne.
With Mines still rejoicing with another goal, a frustrated Skyhawks team would score only 11 seconds later off the kickoff. Loic Jean-Baptiste, a First Team All-RMAC selection for the Skyhawks for a second consecutive season, would center a pass to Lee, who scored on a low shot to finally beat Mines goalkeeper Brian Doherty, who was forced to make only one save in the match.
“We played the ball in behind their back line, which we felt was susceptible to us getting in behind them coming into the match,” Oberholtzer said of his team’s lone goal. “We played a ball in behind, and Loic got on the end of it. Ryan Lee made a great run from 50 yards away to get in front of goal, Loic passed it and, in that moment, Ryan got on the end of it.”
It was a small reward for Lee, the senior from Castle Rock who is the only senior that will graduate and depart the team ahead of next fall. Lee finished with 17 goals and eight assists in his four-year FLC career.
FLC was outshot 13-4 in the game, including 7-2 in shots on goal. The Skyhawks were flagged for offsides five times.
Mines will now face top-seed Colorado Mesa in the conference tournament championship game Sunday night in Grand Junction.
It was the second year in a row the Skyhawks had made the RMAC semifinals, as the team fell to Regis in overtime in last year’s tournament.
Going into his sixth season in the fall of 2021, Oberholtzer firmly believes the Skyhawks have the roster that can make the necessary adjustments to take the next step in the now quickly approaching fall season.
“I think we’re very close, we just have to be consistent,” Oberholtzer said. “We gained some experience this spring, and it’s always good to be playing in important games like this. But when we get there, it’s about making sure we show up and give our best performance. That’s the crucial thing I hope we take from this as a learning lesson.
“We are returning the majority of the team. We are going to miss Ryan Lee, but we’ve got a good group returning and are adding more good players. Today is frustrating and disappointing, but we’re in a good spot.”