COLORADO SPRINGS — The Niwot Cougars came up with the most improbable win in many of their young lives on Tuesday night.
For their most recent upset victory in these Class 4A state playoffs, the No. 11-seeded Cougars won 5-4 in a penalty shootout for a 2-1 win over No. 3 Air Academy in the quarterfinals.
“These guys just want it,” Cougars head coach Rob Johnson said. “They have a chip on their shoulder, they’re pissed off and I love it. They just keep wanting to find ways to win.”
Finding their way to a win was a winding road for the Cougars against the defending state champions.
The Cougars came from behind to tie the game 1-1 in the second half. They played the next 40 minutes a man down after senior Caleb Payne was ejected in the 70th minute for a hard foul on Air Academy’s McKabe Helle.
But the Cougars held off attack after attack by the Kadets, who outscored their first two playoffs opponents by a combined 10-0, to force a shootout.
Cougars goalkeeper John Cooper, filling in for injured starter Josh Watt, felt the weight of the exhausted Cougars’ future on his shoulders. On his third shot in the shootout, he dove but let the ball skip just under his outstretched body to give the Kadets a 3-2 lead. He couldn’t believe he didn’t make the save.
Squatting in the corner of the field, Cooper didn’t watch the next penalty kick. He couldn’t. He had to pull himself together.
“I just said, ‘Come on Johnny, you can do this. This is what you’ve wanted all your life, the chance to win it for your team,'” Cooper said. “I did may part. I saw a ball I could get to and you just make sure to get everything you can of it.”
With the shootout tied 3-3, Cooper made a spectacular diving save to give his shooters a chance to break the Kadets. Less than a minute later, Isaac Nelson’s shot glanced off Kadets keeper Peter Vogrin’s hands to give the Cougars a 4-3 lead.
The Kadets tied it up, and Luis Montealegre stepped into the box with a chance to win the game. He made it count, finding the left side netting to send the Cougars to the semifinals.
“I always stutter step,” Montealegre said. “When I stuttered, the goalie shifted to my right, so I kicked it to the left.”
Montealegre sent Niwot its third semifinal in four years. But it couldn’t have happened with senior striker Tommy Hoffman tying the game in the 68th minute.
“Tommy scored the goal, he’s the hero today,” Montealegre said.
The Cougars fell behind early when Alex Granados scored in the 21st minute. They looked utterly outmatched for the rest of the half, trailing 1-0 at the break.
The one-goal deficit began to appear insurmountable for the Cougars. But in a flash of individual effort, Hoffman dribbled his way into the box and found the side netting to tie the game.
“Our defense came through big and kept it at one,” Hoffman said. “Someone had to score. And it wasn’t just me, it was a complete team game.”
The Cougars will (14-3-1) will play No. 2 Evergreen (16-2) on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Englewood High School. They’ll be without Payne, who has to sit out a game for receiving a red card.
Niwot 2, Air Academy 1
At Liberty H.S.
Niwot 0 1 0 0 5– 2
Air Academy 1 0 0 0 4– 1
Goals (assists) — Alex Granados (Gannon Gardner), Air Academy, 21st minute; Tommy Hoffman, Niwot, 68th minute.
Goalkeepers (Min-Goals allowed-Saves) — Niwot: John Cooper (110-1-9). Air Academy: Peter Vogrin (110-1-3).