NIWOT — After being played evenly on their home pitch by a lower seed, Niwot soccer players got an ultimatum from coach Rob Johnson at the half Tuesday.
The curt message: "I told them, 'Hey, find a way to win. Do you want to pick up the net and the cones and put everything away tomorrow, or do you want to have practice?'"
The fifth-seeded Cougars responded by getting a quick goal to start the half, then held off No. 12 Centaurus 2-1 in the Class 4A second round. Junior striker Justin Barkow, the Northern League's leader in goals and assists during the regular season, scored both for Niwot (15-1-1).
"Going into the half tied with Centaurus in a playoff game, we knew they were going to come out looking for an upset," Barkow said. "We just had to find the heart in ourselves. We talked at halftime and said we have to make ourselves look better."
The Cougars reeled off their 12th straight win and moved on to Saturday's quarterfinals, where they will visit No. 4 D'Evelyn. Centaurus finished 12-4-1 and will graduate nine seniors.
About four minutes into the second half, Barkow pounded home a close-range feed from Nick Alvarado for the go-ahead goal. Niwot continued to pepper Centaurus keeper Ventura Dominguez as the time ticked away, and although the Cougars didn't create any additional goals, they clearly controlled the flow of play after intermission.
Neither coach was fond of having to play a league rival in the second round, as it was the only matchup in the classification pitting the No. 1 and No. 2 teams from a particular league.
"Not disrespecting anything, but it kind of (is unfortunate) that we have to play them in the second round, because that team is very good," said Johnson, whose Cougars won the regular-season matchup 1-0 on Sept. 22.
Barkow put Niwot up 1-0 in the 22nd minute when he sliced a pass from midfielder Billy Hoffmann past Dominguez. But Centaurus found the equalizer about six minutes later, when senior forward Brian Mahar beat Cougars keeper Jack Fitzgerald.
Mahar's ninth goal of the season came on an assist from defender Fernando Cerceda. The Warriors held on to the momentum for a good seven or eight minutes, a stretch in which Mahar twice nearly scored on headers.
"We hit the woodwork a few times and it made it tough, because an inch either way and you've got three goals," Centaurus coach Ken Ebersole said. "Sometimes it's the way the ball goes. It skims in or it skims out."
The loss put to rest a stellar Warriors streak to end the season, in which they reeled off eight wins in nine games. For as well as they played in the first half, the Warriors recognized that Niwot found another gear in the second.
"To their credit, they came out flying," Ebersole said. "We were on our heels a little bit in the second half. Ventura made a couple big-time saves to keep us tight, but they were coming and coming."
For Barkow, the goals upped his season total to 20. He also had one in Niwot's 4-1 first-round win against Skyview.
"Getting two in a playoff game is always fantastic," he said. "I mean, each playoff game is harder and harder. You just have to come out and you have to make a difference."
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Niwot 2, Centaurus 1
At Niwot HS
Centaurus (12-4-1) 1 0 — 1
Niwot (15-1-1) 1 1 — 2
Goals (assists) — Niwot: Justin Barkow (Billy Hoffmann), 22nd; Centaurus: Brian Mahar (Fernando Cerceda), 28th; Niwot: Barkow (Nick Alvarado), 44th.
Goalies (Min-Goals allowed-Saves) — Centaurus: Ventura Dominguez (80-2-9); Niwot: Jack Fitzgerald (80-1-4).