COMMERCE CITY — Vail Mountain completed a season of firsts at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Tuesday.
In the Gore Rangers' first girls soccer state championship appearance in the inaugural season for Class 2A, a freshman, Tess Johnson, scored a pair of goals, including the game-winner with three minutes, 25 seconds remaining, to defeat Dawson School 2-1.
The victory gave Vail Mountain, a school with an enrollment of 110 students that opened in 1962, state title No. 1 in girls sports. It was also their second championship overall. They won boys skiing in 1991.
The Gore Rangers, a team that starts five freshman, Johnson, Emma Hall, Katie Alonzo, Hannah Fallon, and Olivia Manula, beat Dawson 4-0 in the regular season finale on May 1 on the road. The Mustangs were missing two of their best players, Morgan Powers and leading scorer Liv Cramer, a talented first-year of their own, in the regular season. They proved to be a stiffer test in the finals.
In a closely contested game early on, knotted at one at halftime, the Gore Rangers were in attack mode in the final 40 minutes with plenty of scoring opportunities.
First, they hit the cross bar. Then, they just missed a header off a corner kick. Finally, a Vail Mountain shot snuck just to the left side of the net and out-of-bounds. The Gore Rangers applied plenty of pressure, but had a scoreless drought from Johnson's goal in the fifth minute until her game-winner.
Vail Mountain mostly controlled possession late, but Dawson had an impenetrable defense for a good portion of the state finals.
"They were tough in the final third of the field," Vail Mountain coach Bob Bandoni said. "They were double and triple teaming some of our players and that made it tough for us to score."
But, they made a crucial change that allowed them to earn the decisive goal.
"We actually made a little adjustment and moved her a little higher on the field with twenty minutes left because we saw their backs we're playing a little higher," Bandoni said of Johnson, a forward. "They kept encroaching and there was more space back there. We were like, 'Let's see if we can punch one through.'"
Johnson's shot was nearly corralled by Dawson goalkeeper Nicole Towner, but had just enough force to get past the senior.
"When I scored the winning goal, it was a bit of a surprise," Johnson, a member of the United States Junior ski team in the freestyle division, said. "I thought the keeper had it. She played an incredible second half. Once it crossed the line, I knew we were going to take it."
The first-year player hadn't been on a stage like Dick's Sporting Goods Park before, the home of the Colorado Rapids, but she did have poise with a clutch goal last Wednesday. Johnson beat the halftime buzzer to give Vail Mountain a 1-0 lead on Denver Christian, a score that held up as the lone goal in a semifinals victory.
"It means a lot to do this for my team and for my coaches and the seniors," she said. "This has been a season of a lifetime."
Vail Mountain, who had a large fan section make the 100 mile drive to Commerce City, finished off a 16-1 campaign that included wins over 3A playoff teams Aspen and Coal Ridge. They also went undefeated, 10-0, in 3A Region 3, comprised of both 2A and 3A programs. The Gore Rangers were the No. 1 seed in the postseason. They achieved a high standard of success by every measure in 2015.
"What runs through my mind is less the game and more the season," Bandoni said. "We were really looking to punctuate a season where we felt we were growing every time we walked onto the pitch."
Dawson, which answered Johnson's early goal with a Sophie Brussell score in the thirteenth minute, is equally youthful. The Mustangs will return eight of their nine leading goal-getters. The No. 3 seed in 2A finished with an 11-7 record.
Both teams will likely be title contenders again in 2016.