COMMERCE CITY — As the three-time defending Class 3A state champion, there was a definite letdown when Kent Denver’s boys soccer team saw its 2017 season end one game shy of another trip to the state title game.
The Sun Devils weren’t about to experience that feeling again. An unbeaten season was capped off in a more familiar fashion Saturday afternoon as the second-seeded Sun Devils held off defending champion Liberty Common 2-1 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park to claim the program’s fourth 3A crown in five seasons.
“It certainly was a motivation. There’s a proud tradition at Kent Denver, and I know that these guys felt pressure to try to live up to the expectations,” Kent Denver coach Arty Smith said. “They handled it great all season, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Pace Billings scored both goals for the Sun Devils (19-0-1 overall). The first came a little more than seven minutes into the second half, and the second shot found a home on a diving header with less than 15 minutes remaining.
“Pace is a handful for defenses,” Smith said. “He’s so big and strong and athletic. I think he just kind of wears you down.”
Joey Waldbaum made five saves in goal for Kent Denver, which hadn’t allowed a goal in the playoffs until Liberty Common senior Michael Yeh played a ball in front of the net and beat Waldbaum with 12 minutes, 10 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Eagles (16-4) put the pressure on after Yeh’s score, but couldn’t find another open look on the net. Two late corner kicks were quickly cleared out by Kent Denver.
“Liberty Common got that goal and obviously put us back on our heels,” Smith said. “But we stayed composed, we stayed organized and were able to kind of them bottle them up for the last run there, which is easier said than done, I think.
“It took a lot of leadership from the boys and mental strength, as well as physical strength.”
Billings scored five goals in the playoffs, including the game-winner to defeat Strive Prep in the second round. He also had a goal in the semifinal victory over Colorado Academy, but it was his efforts Saturday that put the Sun Devils back on top.
Billings found himself in the right spot on the first goal, with a 2-on-1 advantage that allowed him to send the ball past Liberty Common goalkeeper Michael Bradley.
“We definitely practice getting in there and just doing the best we can with those 50/50 balls in the middle,” Billings said. “My teammate played a great ball into the middle to give me a chance.”
Some 18 minutes later he got another chance. Matias Alberola sent a ball into the box, and Billings headed the ball into the left corner of the net.
“It made the lead a little bit more comfortable,” he said. “It was a beautiful ball.”
Liberty Common has 13 seniors on a team that has established itself as a force in 3A, winning the championship last November and coming up just short again Saturday. Billings said the Sun Devils knew they would have to make the most of the few opportunities they would be given against a talented Eagles defense, but added that what drove Kent Denver even more was the want to bring the trophy back to Kent Denver.
The Sun Devils will graduate 10 seniors of their own, but the team’s three leading scorers – Max Hewitt, Rawson Welch and Spencer Thomas – are juniors, along with Waldbaum.
Smith could only smile when trying to reflect on what the past few years have meant to the program.
“I’m truly blessed. I’ve got a magnificent group of boys, a wonderful coaching staff and a very supportive school,” Smith said. “What else could a coach ask for?”