Steamboat Springs Steamboat Springs senior Kevin Bertrand said that Saturday's Western Slope League soccer showdown with Rifle was a "like a wild card game," with both teams needing the win to increase odds of a postseason berth.
But with six minutes to go in the game, it was a wild play from Bertrand that broke open a tight 1-1 tie to earn the Sailors a win in their final home appearance of the season.
From atop the Rifle penalty box, Steamboat's Colton Harding nailed a high shot that hit the crossbar and flew straight up. Bertrand and Rifle goalkeeper Juan Tuscano went up for the jump ball and collided in mid-air. The contact kept Tuscano from grabbing the ball as it took a bounce and trickled across the goal line. Referees called it a goal, ruling that the ball was already crossing the goal line when the two players collided.
Steamboat continued its aggressive play to hold on and win, 2-1.
Rifle coach Mark Knighton was furious about the call.
"We needed this one. The boys worked way too hard to lose on a sketchy call," Knighton said. "It was an aggressive play, but it was a foul. The keeper is absolutely protected."
Bertrand said he simply reacted to the ball.
"He heard my footsteps. I just broke it up between the goalie and the ball," Bertrand said.
Knighton's bitterness was founded in his belief that his team, which tied Steamboat in their previous meeting Sept. 8, out-played the Sailors.
Steamboat certainly came out lacking urgency. The Sailors didn't have a shot on goal for the first 15 minutes. But when they did get a crack at the net, the Sailors made it count. Sean Hurst streaked down the right side, beating Rifle fullback Jaden Condie nearly to the corner before sending a perfect cross to Daniel Wright, who sprinted in and snuck the ball past Tuscano with a right-footed one-touch to put Steamboat up 1-0.
With 10 minutes to go in the first half, Rifle took control of possessions and began creating pressure in the Steamboat end.
Off a throw-in deep in Sailors territory, Bears forward Scott Rust took Rifle's best shot of the half, but Steamboat goalkeeper Connor Birch made a high-jumping save, with a little help from the crossbar. Steamboat dodged another bullet off another deep throw-in when Rust struck again, but shanked a point-blank shot. Rifle continued the pressure, out-shooting Steamboat, 10-5, in the half.
After a brief halftime ceremony honoring Steamboat's six seniors in uniform, Rifle (3-6 in league) carried the momentum right into the second half, where it scored on its first shot.
Brycen Fauser sent a direct kick from 50 yards out into the Steamboat box. Birch dove on the ball, but couldn't keep it from popping out of his grasp and onto the foot of Garret Babcock for a "gimme" of a goal to tie the game.
Steamboat had its most aggressive offensive play in the final 15 minutes, desperate to avoid another tie.
"Everybody was playing in these high-intensity spurts in the last 10 minutes where we rallied with everything we had," Bertrand said.
Birch made his finest - and last of seven - saves on a low, screened shot from Rust to allow the Steamboat offense to go to work and set themselves up with the opportunity to win.
Steamboat, now 6-7-1 overall and 6-4-1 in league, heads to Moffat County at 4 p.m. Tuesday for its final regular season game.
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