Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer
COMMERCE CITY — When Ella Stewart and her Dawson girls soccer team first stepped on the pitch for the spring of 2022, they couldn’t have imagined where they’d be standing during their final game of the season.
Not only did the Mustangs lose over half of their starters — including their most prolific scorer in Degen Miller — from their 2021 state championship team, but they lost two of their best returning players to ACL and collarbone injuries before the year even began.
On Wednesday night at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, they hoisted a trophy above their heads that read “Class 2A state champion” after defeating 10th-seeded Crested Butte with a 3-0 final. They entered the match as the No. 5 seed after upsetting top-ranked Denver Christian just two days earlier in the semifinals.
The shoe fit just right.
“It’s kind of like a Cinderella story,” Stewart said. “We lost six of our starters (from) last year and we were like, ‘This is going to be a hard season.’ But we came back and I’m just really proud of everyone and how they did.”
The 2A state title game played out much like Dawson’s season did, as the Mustangs got on the board early with a Madison Shaw goal just six minutes into the action. After that, the momentum on both sides of the ball flattened out.
Just as it appeared that that lone goal in the opening minutes of the contest would decide the final score, the Mustangs peaked late. With 15 minutes left on the clock and little wiggle room on the scoreboard, Kanoe Bihag made her charge toward the goal. Crested Butte’s Sawyer Ezzell forced her way in front of her in the box, causing Bihag to fall.
The yellow card that ensued gifted the Mustangs the perfect opportunity to supplement their lead, and handed the reins over to Stewart. She didn’t waste the penalty kick.
“I saw her go down and it looked like she was hurting, so I was like, ‘Oh no.’ That was my first thought,” Stewart said. “Then I was like, ‘Oh my God, coach told me that I needed to take the PKs.’ So I just started breathing and doing a lot of visualizations so I was just trying to visualize it going in.
“When I went up there, I was just like, ‘I know how to do this. It’s just like practice.’ So I had to take some deep breaths to calm down because I could really feel it in my chest, just very anxious because this was a big moment.”
That little cushion clearly wasn’t enough for Dawson.
As the clock ticked closer and closer to zero, in the 76th minute, Bihag shot off one more ball toward the Crested Butte goal. It soared straight over the head of Titans’ keeper. That’s all the Mustangs needed to secure the 2A state crown, their second in as many years and their third since 2018.
That final goal allowed head coach John Welsch to breathe again. The toughness the ladies showed through season-long adversity proved pivotal in the very end.
“We had a little bit of a rough start,” Welsch said. “Every time we’d show up for a game, we’d go, ‘All right, who’s here today? Who can we play with?’ These girls, they started meshing and peaking at the right time, I think. Every game, they’d start getting better and better and they competed. It’s not always pretty but they’re determined, they fight for each other and they like each other. It’s been a fun journey.”