ENGLEWOOD – Cyrus Salehi knew something special was brewing even before the boys soccer season kicked off in August.
Having watched his team enjoy plenty of success against Class 5A programs at a summer camp at the University of Denver, the Liberty Common coach realized big things were in store for 2017.
His players backed that up with an undefeated regular season, and after a 2-1 victory over Colorado Springs Christian on Wednesday night in the Class 3A state semifinals, the Eagles are headed to their first state championship game in any sport.
Eighth-seeded Liberty Common (19-0) will face either Kent Denver or Colorado Academy at 1 p.m. on Saturday in the 3A title game at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City.
“It feels fabulous. It’s fantastic,” said Eagles junior Elliot McCormick, who scored the game-winning goal with eight minutes remaining in the first half. “We didn’t play the prettiest soccer, but we got it done.”
Salehi said that because the Metro League receives all the credit and attention in the 3A ranks, his squad plays with the “proverbial chip” on its shoulders. Even after defeating top-seeded Jefferson Academy in the quarterfinals, the players didn’t let the upset go to their heads.
“We relish the underdog role. When they knocked out Jefferson (Academy), they left and said ‘we still have two more games,’” Salehi said. “It’s that cliché. They celebrated that day and the next day we went to work.”
Liberty Common wasted no time getting on the scoreboard Wednesday, needing just two minutes before Zack Harker found the back of the net. Less than five minutes later Colorado Springs Christian (16-3) notched the equalizer on a nice shot from Noah Banderas.
McCormick put the Eagles back on top to stay with seven minutes, 51 seconds remaining in the half after his deep ball found its mark.
“We saw that when we were parking the bus, their goalie took the liberty to come off his line,” Salehi said. “When he did, we had boys that will bury that 40 yards away.
“It looked like it was a fluke goal – it’s not. He does that in training. We have four of these boys that will do that in training eight out of 10 times.”
The fourth-seeded Lions put the pressure on in the second half but couldn’t find a way to solve the Eagles’ defensive backfield. Liberty Common found a way to prevent the Lions’ high scoring tandem of Kinsley and Lookens Smith (49 goals between them) from getting a clean look.
“We have a high-pressure mentality where we’re just tenacious, and we’re deep,” Salehi said. “Our motto is go 10-15 minutes as hard as you can putting tenacious pressure on all those boys, especially the Smith brothers. When you’re tired, come out and we’ll put in new fresh legs and keep on them.”
Now Liberty Common turns its attention to another Metro League foe in either Kent Denver or Colorado Academy. Those two programs have combined to win the previous five 3A state titles.
“Either one of these two teams that we play, we’re going to have our hands full,” Salehi said before the second semifinal. “Facing either one of these two teams is a daunting task, but we’ll look to try and have one more win.”
(3) Colorado Academy 0, (2) Kent Denver 0 (5-4 PKs)
After watching fellow goalkeeper Max Jack keep Kent Denver from finding the back of the net through 110 minutes of play, Colorado Academy sophomore Noah Rhodes found himself stepping into goal for the shootout round of the 3A state semifinals late Wednesday night.
Locked in a scoreless tie with the three-time defending state champion Sun Devils, Rhodes and his Mustang teammates rallied to the occasion. After Kent Denver took the early lead and was poised to move on, Rhodes stopped the potential game-winning shot.
One round later, Wyatt Westfall punched his attempt home to send Colorado Academy to a 5-4 shootout victory and propel the Mustangs (15-4) into Saturday’s state championship game.
“I never would have got the chance of my keeper didn’t make a great save,” Westfall said, “and if my other keeper didn’t keep us in the game all day.”
Kent Denver (16-2-2) knocked in its first four attempts of the shootout, while sophomore keeper Joey Waldbaum stopped his first attempt. But Rhodes turned away Nick Payne in the fifth round, and the Mustangs’ Eric Bear tied things up at 4-4.
Kent’s Matias Alberola saw his shot go over the crossbar, and Westfall converted his chance to put Colorado Academy back in the title game for the first time since 2014.
“We knew coming in this was going to be a really, really tough battle. We have complete trust in our goalkeepers,” Mustangs coach Gabe Bernstein said. “We practice those moments, and I think our boys rose to the occasion.
“You never want to see a game like this with young men who pour their heart and soul into the game end on PKs, but that’s the way the game is.”
Both teams had their chances, including shots by both sides in the second overtime that went off the post.
The matchup with Liberty Common will be the first this year for Colorado Academy.
“You’ve got to respect a team like that,” Bernstein said of the undefeated and eighth-seeded Eagles. “We’ll make sure we recover and get our boys ready to go, but I think Saturday will be a tough challenge.”