DENVER — Each player on the Colorado Academy girls lacrosse team this season has carried around a small, flat, silver chip with the engraved message, "Always with you." It's the Mustangs' reminder to always come together as a team.
After a complete team effort from the two-time defending state champion, Colorado Academy advanced to the 2017 title game with a 15-3 victory over Arapahoe in the girls lacrosse semifinals at the University of Denver's Barton Lacrosse Stadium on Saturday.
"What was important for this game was our teamwork and coming together with everything we’ve learned this season," senior midfielder Sydney Prokupek said.
The No. 1-seeded Mustangs scored 15 goals from eight different players.
Junior attack Lauren Russell put the Mustangs on the board early with a quick goal 50 seconds into the game. She was vicious on the attack from the get-go, and scored three of her four goals in the first ten minutes of the game.
Continuing to penetrate and aggressively cut towards the goal drawing fouls, Claire Wright scored for the Mustangs on a free shot, and notched another first-half, free-shot minutes later.
Heading into halftime, the Mustangs were working a 9-0 shutout of the Warriors.
Colorado Academy was strong on the attack and dominant on winning draws. The Mustangs were also shutting down Arapahoe's offense with quick speed and agile stick work. The Warriors had been slow to attack in the first half, holding on to the ball too long and getting jammed up in the perimeter.
But the No. 12-seeded Warriors (11-7) pushed back, like they have done so well in this postseason, and got their first goal of the game 35 seconds into the second half, and another six minutes later to cut the Mustangs' lead to 9-2
Then Mustangs team leader Prokupek went off on an offensive tear in the second half, scoring two goals in two minutes to push an 11-2 lead.
Spreading the field well, CA pushed even further ahead of the Warriors 14-2. While Arapahoe scored another goal with 3:34 left in regulation, the damage of the 14-3 deficit was too much to overcome.
Freshman Merrill Rollhaus' unassisted goal was the last of the game, marking a dominant 15-3 victory and third straight trip to the state championship for the Steph Sanders-coached Mustangs.
"Something that set the momentum for us, this year especially, is because we’ve done so well in past years," Prokupek said. "Keeping up that energy we’ve had, and passion the coaches have for teaching us translates to the field, and I think that makes energy across the whole state showing that a team for three years can do this well."
The Mustangs, with three total state titles, have never lost in the championship.
"We have a saying for the playoffs, which is 'one heart, one goal,'" Prokupek said.
But now there is only one team, one game standing between the Mustangs and a third straight state championship. And that's, once again, lacrosse behemoth Cherry Creek, which has never missed a finals appearance since the sport has been played in Colorado.
Cherry Creek 8, Denver East
Eliza Radochonski didn't bat an eye when she said it: "We’re really looking for some revenge this year."
After Cherry Creek took down Denver East 8-5 in the girls lacrosse state semifinals on Saturday at DU, the No. 6-seeded Bruins advanced to the program's 20th straight championship appearance.
The title game will be a rematch between the Bruins and Colorado Academy. CA topped Cherry Creek last year 9-8 in the championship, and won in 2015 over the Bruins 8-3.
Cherry Creek, the state's winningest girls lacrosse team, is gunning for the Mustangs, a team that hasn't ever lost in a title game before. But Cherry Creek (15-3) has appeared in every girls lacrosse state final since 1998, when the sport first started in Colorado, and boasts 10 state titles.
"Creek’s legacy is super-special, and we we want to back up the history it has," Radochonski said. "It’s been especially tough this year with stiff competition in Colorado."
In an extremely physical semifinal game that was neck-and-neck for the first 20 minutes and raining yellow cards in the last 20 minutes, the Bruins muscled their way past No. 2-seeded Denver East (14-4).
"It was a really tough-fought game against East, and we fought through a lot of adversity with those yellow cards, but we came out with so much will power and ended up getting that win," Radochonski said.
Radochonski scored the first goal ten minutes into the game, but was quickly equalized one minute later by an East goal from junior Malia Ross. When Katherine Collins put Creek up 2-1, Lucy McHugh responded four minutes later, drawing the game at 2.
Radochonski notched her second of four goals to put the Bruins up 3-2 going into halftime.
Six minutes into the second half, Creek ripped another two goals for a 5-2 lead. But the last 20 minutes of the game is where the physicality began to reach new heights.
Two Creek players were lost to yellow cards, and the slew of penalties put East in some great scoring positions. East senior Kate Burney attacked the goal, powered her way to the right side and buried the ball in the net, cutting the Bruins lead to 5-3.
It was a tough spot for the Bruins, but phenomenal goaltending from sophomore Megan Patrick ensured no free shots went in.
Bruins sophomore attack/midfielder Katherine Collins rose to the challenge with her quick speed, jetting down the length of the field and slicing around defenders. Her second goal of the game put the Bruins up 6-3.
There were three goals scored in the last three minutes of the game. Amazing efforts by East's Josi Robinson and Thyra Hermann kept them in the game, but there just wasn't enough time for the Angels to tie it.
After the blood battle that ended with six yellow cards for Creek and four for East, the Bruins earned their shot to take on the two-time defending state champ again.
"It’s really special opportunity for our seniors," Radochonski said. "We’ve had a few chances, haven’t gotten there. But we really hope this is our year."
Colorado Academy and Cherry Creek will play a state championship rematch game on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.