As the sun set on the 2016 boys soccer season last November, so too did the proverbial cloud that had hovered over The Classical Academy.
The Titans walked away from Dick's Sporting Goods Park with the school's first state championship in the sport after coming up just short in the title game in five of the previous six seasons.
But somewhat lost in the shuffle of the Titans' ride to the top was the story of the final two teams TCA had to get past in order to win the championship. A pair of teams from the Western half of the state earned its way into the Final 4, as Battle Mountain and Durango showcased the talent that can be sometimes overlooked, given its location.
"It feels like whoever is the last team on the Western Slope is carrying the torch," Battle Mountain coach David Cope said. "Last year it was really cool to see us both in the semifinals."
Battle Mountain returned to the state championship game for the first time since winning the 2012 crown. The Huskies couldn't slow the offensive juggernaut that was TCA – two of Battle Mountain's three losses came to the Titans by a combined score of 13-1 – but the reigning Western Slope League champions continue to prove that they belong in the upper echelon of the 4A classification.
"The standard at our program is pretty high since we've been to the finals in two of the last five years," Cope said. "There's a feeling like the boys feel we're one of the teams in the state that can make a deep run in the playoffs.
"There's also a feeling of after getting to the state final and graduating a lot of kids, the kids who were sitting on the bench or playing JV feel like they could've done it too. Now it's their chance."
Durango's run to the state semifinals was its deepest since making the 4A quarterfinals in 2010. The Demons, who captured the 5A/4A Southwestern League crown, hadn't been to the semis since 2007 when the squad was in 5A.
"We're really excited to be consistent. We're not looking to say 'Let's go win this whole thing starting in August,'" Durango coach Dalon Parker said. "We're just trying to say 'Let's be consistent, and consistency starts with a lot of different things.'"
While The Classical Academy graduated its high-octane trio of Player of the Year Titus Grant, Jaden Borja and Jeremy Baldes – who combined to score 69 of the team’s 121 goals – both Battle Mountain and Durango return its leading scorers. All-state forward Juan Macias led the Huskies with 20 goals and 16 assists, and Eli Fenton led a balanced Demons attack with 11 goals and 14 assists.
Both teams are also solid in other areas. Defender Tony Velasco and goalkeeper Alan Villegas – who had nine shutouts – are among those back for Battle Mountain. Durango's Max Wilson was second on the team with nine goals as a junior, and Leland Heinicke played in 20 games as a freshman. Keeper Trey Furnas recorded 13 shutouts in his junior season.
Cheyenne Mountain, which was the top seed a year ago, enters 2017 as the preseason No. 1. Teams like TCA, Air Academy and D'Evelyn are always strong, and Valor Christian returns all-state keeper Ryan Pierce from a squad that reached the quarterfinals.
Battle Mountain is ranked No. 2 in the preseason, while Durango is No. 4.
If the 4A classification has proven anything, it's that any number of programs can rise to the challenge and emerge victorious at season's end. While The Classical Academy has appeared in three consecutive 4A title games, over the past 11 years there have been 10 different state champions.
No team has repeated since Dakota Ridge did in 1997-98, something Cope pointed to as why 4A is so competitive each year.
"I think that's good for soccer, and I think that's good for our 4A classification when we can get multiple teams into the Elite 8 and Final 4s," Parker added. "I think it makes for a stronger 4A classification when a lot of schools are having success."
In Class 5A, Boulder enters the season ranked No. 1 after defeating Front Range League rival Broomfield in a thrilling 14-round shootout last November. It was the Panthers' first state title since 2012. Boulder's fellow FRL teams Broomfield, Fairview and Fossil Ridge, along with Denver East, come into 2017 ranked in the top five.
In 3A, Kent Denver enters as the team to beat after claiming its third-consecutive state title. The Sun Devils graduated 14 seniors, including Player of the Year Max Mehlman. Jefferson Academy and Colorado Academy are among the teams continuing to try and dethrone Kent Denver.
Boys Soccer preview
- Regular Season Begins: Aug. 24
- Postseason Begins: Oct. 25
Nov. 11 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City
- 3A: 1 p.m.
- 4A: 10:30 a.m.
- 5A: 3:30 p.m.
- 5A: Boulder
- 4A: The Classical Academy
- 3A: Kent Denver
Returning All-State Players
- First Team: Sam Carson, Sr., Denver East; Omar Castruita, Jr., Boulder.
- Second Team: Mathew Rhoads, Sr., Fort Collins; Eric Thompson, Sr., Fort Collins.
- First Team: Juan Macias, Sr., Battle Mountain.
- Second Team: Eli Fenton, Sr., Durango; Ryan Pierce, Jr., Valor Christian; Dylan Stanley, Sr., Pueblo West; Brandon Staple, Sr., Longmont.
- First Team: AJ Arroyo, Sr., Jefferson Academy; Larson Baker, Sr., Colorado Academy; Brandon Lefkowicz, Sr., Peak to Peak.
- Second Team: Jorge Gurrola, Sr., KIPP Denver Collegiate