Sometimes, the Soccer Gods can be cruel to our opponents, too.
In a very ugly defensive game that Denver frankly didn’t deserve to win, the Pioneers were able to do just enough on a pair of set pieces to sneak away with a 2-1 victory over the gutty and spirited University of the Pacific Tigers, before just over 500 fans at DU Soccer Stadium on this sunny October 6th afternoon.
DU redshirt Sophomore Bailey Heller’s half-volley game-winning goal in the 80th minute provided the thin margin of victory and the DU win was only the third in this brutal season to date. The Pioneers (3-6-2) were badly outplayed for much of the game by Pacific (3-7-1) from the West Coast Conference, who controlled the possession all afternoon, and outshot DU, 13-7 in the first-ever soccer game between the two schools.
“We need more consistency from [our] group,” said DU Coach Jamie Franks after the Pioneers’ mostly lackluster performance. “My job as the leader of the organization is to hold the standards of their work rate, positioning and mentality to a higher level. When we have guys that meet those high standards, and play for each other, we’re a really hard team to beat. Obviously we’ve had a tough season going on the road and playing the [highly-ranked] teams that we have. Our identity has been shook a little bit. My group has to look deep and figure out who they want to be and what they want to get out of the rest of this year.”
Indeed, the turning point in the game came in the final 20 minutes of this defensive, physical struggle, which was filled with six cards issued and high drama. Pacific was controlling the play as it had for most of the afternoon, yet the Pioneers were desperately clinging to a 1-0 lead, which had come in the 14th minute on a Preston Judd header from a Josh Drack corner kick, against the run of play.
In that 79th minute, Pacific’s speedster right back, Anthony Orendain, would change the course of the game with a single dumb decision, as he got into a violent physical altercation in front of the Pioneer bench that resulted in a straight red card/game ejection being issued by referee Joti Baruni.
Initially, the ejection of Orendain directly fired-up the Tigers, who despite being down to 10 men, found the extra resilience to score the game-tying goal just four minutes later. The visitors from Stockton, Calif. were able to take advantage of a poor DU turnover when DU captain Jacob Stensson sent an errant clearance straight to the Tigers, which went the other way and ended up as a shot on the Pioneer goal and a save for DU goalie Will Palmquist, who then left the juicy rebound in the box for the Tigers’ Derick Roque to bury into the Pioneers’ net, tying the game at 1-1.
“I think for us, it’s about not beating ourselves,” said Franks. “Their goal once again is a bad turnover from us. We need to be cleaner in that moment.”
However, that game-tying goal by Pacific then seemed to fire-up the Pioneers to answer the bell as the clock ticked down, as DU tried to leverage its one-man advantage by flooding the Pacific goal box with players for a another Drack corner kick in the 80th minute. Drack’s corner kick floated into the box and popped up near the feet of DU’s Bailey Heller, who turned and fired a half-volley into the Pacific net to give DU the lead it would not relinquish in the final 10 minutes.
“It was amazing,” Heller told LetsGoDU’s Jason Evans after the game. “[My] first college goal is always great, but I’m more excited about the win…This team is resilient and we had a lot of fight. I knew we were going to get [the game winning goal].”
Denver now begins a four-match road swing next Saturday October 12th when the Pioneers return to Summit League action versus the Western Illinois Leathernecks. Kickoff is set for 12 p.m. MT, and the match will be streamed live on ESPN+.