Photos: Courtesy Jason Evans. Pioneers celebrate Judd’s game winning goal (above).
The low point came a month ago (10/19) with a loss to Summit League member Western Illinois. Said head coach Jamie franks, “I’m very disappointed with my group. The mentality of the group was wrong. We just got out worked today. The success of the program has always been built on three things that you can control: your positioning, your work rate and your mentality. This season, this team’s work rate and their mentality have been poor. They have not been open to criticism. There has not been ownership every day to try to bring their best and get better. For that, we haven’t gotten results.” The team fell to 2-7-2 overall, 0-1-1 Summit League.
Fast forward to Saturday afternoon’s 1-0 victory over Omaha to capture the Summit League Men’s Soccer Championship at CIBER field and earn an automatic berth to the NCAA’s playoffs for a record eighth consecutive season. A season of disappointments is looking up.
While Denver continues to struggle scoring goals (1.0 per game), a rock solid defense has developed in front of junior goalkeeper Will Palmquist. And, the midfield is beginning to control pace and earn posession of 50/50 balls. Franks now has a soccer team that is used to operating with narrow margins and constructed for what Frank’s call’s ‘knockout soccer’. With a team devoid of senior leadership and following one of the most brutal road schedules in college soccer, Denver regained more steady footing over the past month and were ready to go when the Summit League Championships began Thursday against Oral Roberts with a 2-0 win. Then, today, Denver carried their new, improved toughness into the Omaha game in the Summit League Championship finals. Said Franks after the game, “With resiliency, with collectiveness and a sense of urgency – when you play the schedule we did – we’re ready for knockout games.”
Denver used ball pressure, hustle and tight marking to limit the Mavericks opportunities. At 28:50 of the first half, defender Callum Stretch sent a ball to forward Preston Judd who delivered a 25 yard rifle shot into a steady northerly breeze – and found the upper right side of the frame, 1-0 Denver.
Judd 29' Denver 1-0 Omaha
— Denver MSoccer (@DU_MSoccer) November 16, 2019
The balance of the match, the teams limited each other’s opportunities as both sides battled for every possession. Denver out-shot Omaha 8 to 7. The game was physical with 39 fouls and 3 yellow cards (2 for Denver and 1 for Omaha) as nearly every lane and pass was contested. A steady 15 mph northern wind dropped the temperatures during the game and made it difficult for teams to settle long balls, either facing into the wind or with the wind at their backs. So, shots were few, limited and hurried.
And credit goes to Omaha head Coach Bob Warming and a scrappy Maverick side who, without the decisive Preston Judd goal, may still be playing for an NCAA berth.
The loss ends the season for the #4 seed Omaha Mavericks (4-9-4, 2-2-1) who are in their fourth straight Summit League finals playing the University of Denver. And Denver (6-11-3, 2-2-1) will be eyeing the NCAA selection show set for Monday on NCAA.com.