The Valor Christian boys soccer team was seeking retribution. What the Eagles found on Nov. 9 at Randy Penn Stadium in Englewood, however, was a cruel kind of déjà vu.
Exactly 53 weeks after losing by a single point to Denver East in one of the bigger upsets of the 2021 Class 5A state playoffs, the top-seeded Eagles were once again the spectators as their No. 2-seeded opponents jumped up and down in jubilation after a hard-fought duel, this time in the semifinal round of the 5A state tournament with a berth in the championship match on the line.
East 2, Valor 1.
Last year, the Eagles, as the No. 2 seeds, were stunned 1-0 by 15th-seeded East on their home pitch in the second round of the state playoffs.
“They played their hearts out,” 14th-year Valor coach Brian Shultz said of his senior-laden group, ranked No. 1 in Colorado and 45th nationally. “Give credit to Denver East for playing a great game.”
What made this one even tougher to swallow for the Eagles was that they had the win in their sights after taking a 1-0 lead more than halfway through the contest.
In the 49th minute, after a throw-in from Valor's Grant Walters about 35 yards away from East's goal, Zac Brooks executed a perfect flick pass to Zach Winkelman, who controlled it, spun and stuck the ball in the bottom-left corner of the nylon.
“We'd been trying [that play] all year. That was the first time it actually worked,” Winkelman said. “Perfect throw, perfect flick, tap-in for me. It felt great to go up 1-0.”
But when there's history and perhaps some bad blood between two teams, rarely do matches end without some kind of fireworks.
Less than 8 minutes after Winkelman's netter, East's Grant Elliott drove a long free kick in the direction of Valor's cage. Goalkeeper Dennis Polzin came up to get it, but Gus Sundstrom barely beat him to the ball and headed it in for the equalizer.
“I thought [Polzin] did a great job of coming out and challenging for it,” Shultz said. “[Sundstrom] just got his head in there a split second earlier. It was a great goal by [East].”
Then, with less than 12 minutes to play, the Angels' Theo Scott launched a 60-yard free kick into the mass of humanity camped out in front of Valor's goal. The ball caromed a few times before Clayton Thomas' header found the back of the net for a 2-1 East advantage.
East largely played keep-away the rest of the game, and the final whistle sent the Angels sprinting toward their fans in the stands.
“They're a great team,” East coach Kirk Bast, in his 10th season, said of the Eagles. “It takes everything we have to beat a team like Valor. All credit to their coach. All credit to their players. Those guys played great soccer. We just won some key moments in the game. That was the difference.”
Said Sundstrom of trailing with more than half the match gone: “We've been down before. We don't quit.”
Much of the star power on this year's Valor squad — Brooks (goals, assists and points leader), Walters (most steals), Zeke Anderson (second-leading goal scorer) and Daniel Schuylar (third-most goals), just to name a few — won't be on the Eagles sideline next season as Shultz will lose 15 of his 22 players to graduation.
But the 2022 Eagles can take solace in knowing that they took Valor the furthest that an Eagles boys soccer team has ever gone in the state playoffs in the 17-year history of the school.
“[The seniors] have meant the world to me,” Winkelman, a junior, said. “They took me under their wing. This was the best class Valor's ever had. I'm really going to miss them next year.”
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