COMMERCE CITY — The gas tank was empty.
The Jefferson Academy Jaguars didn't want to go to a penalty shoot-out Saturday against Kent Denver in the 3A state championship game at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, but as time ticked away in the second overtime is was blatantly apparent that it was going to be their best chance to unseat the two-time champs.
Jaguars keeper Eric Strauss, who was nothing short of brilliant for his team in the shoot-out semifinal win over KIPP and then again during regulation, wasn't able to turn away a shot in the PK's and the Sun Devils walked away with the title with a 4-2 advantage in kicks.
"We took it as far as we could against the best team in the state," Strauss said."I was confident, but with PK's you just never know because it's built for the shooter to score.
"Their keeper made great saves and I didn't."
Sixth seeded Jefferson Academy capped it best run in school history with a 16-4 record. The now three-time champions from Kent Denver went 19-0-1.
The Kent Denver offensive onslaught began nearly from the opening whistle. Max Sanson's shot had to be pushed over the bar by Strauss in the third minute.
In the 10th, Strauss was again at his acrobatic best, this time turning away Max Mehlman.
"I just did my best to help our team get the ball in the back of the net for us," said Strauss, who would finish with nine saves. "They were getting frustrated and they were trying to foul us and we just kept fighting."
The Jags, who could never solved Kent during their 1-0 regular season loss in September, finally did in the 12th minute. Brandon Leeper hit a half volley from 20 yards out and tucked it just inside Ross Rainaldi's far post.
"It was weird, because I felt like everything was going in slow motion and it just happened," said Leeper, who admitted he was gassed very early on during the match.
Kent would equalize in the 30th on the first of two goals for David Felman. It was short lived.
Leeper would respond 43 seconds later. His direct free kick from over 50 yards was perfectly placed and Rainaldi was stunned.
"I just kind of went for it," Leeper said. "That's what my coaches tell me, just go for it, and I figured I may as well do it."
Felman would again tie the match in the opening moments of a second half that was dominated by Sun Devils and conversely by Strauss.
The junior keeper added two more highlight reel saves in the final 40 minutes of regulation.
"(Eric) was huge again for us today and we just didn't generate the chances we normally do," Jags coach Matt Cassell said. "We were tired and I don't know if that game on Wednesday night made it tougher, but hey, we made it to the state championship."
In the shoot-out, Kent Denver went first and quickly built a 3-1 lead on the strength of goals from Felman, Rory Buck and Mehlman in addition to back-to-back saves from Rainaldi on Shervin Kazemi and Peter Schuler.
"We didn't want to go to penalty kicks because we had just got there and obviously its a challenge to do it two times in a row," Cassell said. "They knew where our shooters were going and we tried to change it up."
The bittersweet end to the season comes with the knowledge that the groundwork has been laid for success in the future for a growing program.
"We lose some great players," Cassell said. "But we have some great sophomores and our juniors are our core, so I expect his team to be just as competitive next year."
KENT DENVER 2 (4), JEFFERSON ACADEMY 2 (2)
At Dick's Sporting Goods ParkJefferson Academy (16-4) 2 0 0 0 — 2 (2)
Kent Denver (19-0-1) 1 1 0 0 — 2 (4)
Goals (assists) — Jefferson Academy: Brandon Leeper (unassisted), 12th minute; Kent Denver: David Felman (Max Mehlman), 30th; Jefferson Academy: Leeper (unassisted), 31st; Kent Denver: Felman (Mehlman), 43rd.
Shootout goals — Jefferson Academy: Alex Kelso, Kile Kelly; Kent Denver: Felman, Rory Buck, Mehlman, Mason Saeed.
Goalies (Min-Goals allowed-Saves) — Jefferson Academy: Eric Strauss (110-2-9); Kent Denver: Ross Rainaldi (110-2-7).