COMMERCE CITY – The finale was beautiful, a soccer moment that youthful members of Air Academy’s team will savor for the next 50 years.
Calvin Yocum lofted a corner kick that seemed guided by radar to Ryan Self’s forehead. Self composed himself from 10 yards out, pulled his head back, delivered a clean hit on the pass and pounded a Golden Goal game-winner to lift the Kadets to a 1-0 victory over Centaurus in the 4A final.
Soon, the Kadets were leaping and shouting and hugging each other and classmates and parents as they celebrated soccer perfection, or at least as close to perfection as they ever will reach. Air Academy mowed through all opponents this season on its way to a 20-0 record.
Self was talking fast as he thought back to a momentous moment that always will be, more than anyone else’s, his moment.
“I saw it,” he said of Yocum’s kick, “but I didn’t know if I could get enough umphh on it.”
After watching the ball bounce off the hand of Centaurus goalkeeper Rodrigo Ruiz and slip into the mouth of the goal, Self sprinted toward his Air Academy classmates, who were agog with joy in the stands.
“It feels like a million bucks,” Self said. “I feel through the roof right now. I don’t even know how to describe it. There’s so much emotion.”
But there was a crucial moment that was not so beautiful, a moment the Kadets will omit when talking about the victory with their grandkids.
The Kadets were magnificent this season, but Self and his teammates came achingly close to walking off the field as the state’s second-place team.
With 1:15 left in regulation, Centaurus forward Christian Nunez beat Air Academy goalkeeper Thomas Beatty with a shot. The ball was headed into the goal, and Air Academy was headed for defeat, and Kadet defender Andrew Hess faced an instant decision.
Hess had no chance at the ball with his feet or his head.
He did have clean shot with his left hand.
Hess, swinging with that left hand, batted the ball down.
Hand ball on the Kadets. Penalty kick for the Warriors.
“I made a split-second decision whether to let it go,” Hess said. “But knowing we would have a better chance, I went after it. We just had to do what it takes to win.”
Still, the game seemed over.
Centaurus coach Lee Stanley chose Cristian Rice to take the kick. This was a strange, and wrong, decision. Stanley should have gone with Nunez, who had been sensational all morning.
Rice’s kick resembled a field goal, sailing high above the crossbar. The Kadets remained alive.
Air Academy coach Espen Hosoien shrugged. Yes, he said, the Kadets would have had virtually no chance to win if Rice had buried the shot in the net.
“I feel for that guy,” Hosoien said of Rice. “That can’t be fun. Obviously, as an opposing coach, you’re all right with it, but, you know, it’s a shame for a kid to have a moment like that. That ball goes in, we lose.”
Centaurus coach Lee Stanley was remarkably upbeat after the defeat. Stanley said he believed in Rice. He said he still believes in Rice.
“The gravity of the situation, a minute left in the state final, it gets into your head a little bit,” Stanley said. “It certainly would get in my head. It’s an unfortunate way not to win the state final.”
Centaurus had matched the Kadets the entire game. The teams battled to a 0-0 tie in regulation, but it was not one of those plodding soccer matches that are exhausting to watch.
The Warriors almost scored on a header 10 minutes into the game. Self came close on a head shot at the midway point of the first half. Seconds later, Nunez sent a rocket over the crossbar.
With 5:35 left in regulation, Air Academy’s Luke Louthan’s shot bounced off Ruiz’s right hand and inched slowly toward the goal as Ruiz scrambled to recover. The post saved Centaurus.
But in overtime, Air Academy dominated. Turns out, the Kadets were revived by Rice’s miss, and the Warriors were squashed.
Six minutes into overtime, Louthan just missed Self with a short pass in front of the goal. Four minutes later, Kristian Hooker directed a superb pass to Louthan, who couldn’t gain control. The Kadets were missing strong chances, but the message was clear:
They had seized control.
As Self watched Yocum’s kick approach his head, he was thinking about all the chances the Kadets had failed to convert. He was thinking about his missed first-half header. He was thinking about that penalty kick.
“Everything, everything in the game was on my mind,” he said.
He cleared his mind, just in time, to deliver a perfect finale.