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CSU Pueblo shuts down FLC offense, wins RMAC Tournament Championship 2-0

Skyhawks await NCAA Tournament selection on Monday
Emmett Layman of Fort Lewis College moves the ball on Friday while playing Colorado State University Pueblo in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship game at FLC. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

A celebration began after the buzzer sounded at Dirks Field Friday night.

But it wasn’t for Fort Lewis.

The CSU Pueblo bench sprinted out onto the field in rapture as the ThunderWolves captured the RMAC Tournament Championship 2-0, handing the Skyhawks their first loss in 26 days and six games.

“I’m immensely proud of the guys,” Fort Lewis head coach David Oberholtzer said. “The support that turned out for the game was amazing. It was a fantastic environment to play in. Obviously, tonight didn’t go our way but everything they’ve done and accomplished all season long, especially where we’re at last year, the turnaround is phenomenal.”

CSU Pueblo improved to 15-4-2 after the win and the Skyhawks fell to 11-4-4 after the loss.

Fort Lewis College lost despite outshooting CSU Pueblo 14-10, including a 7-4 advantage on shots on goal. Gabriel Campora scored both goals for the ThunderWolves. It was a physical game with 27 total fouls and six yellow cards.

“They’re stingy defensively,” Oberholtzer said about CSU Pueblo. “They worked very hard tonight, they’re good in the air. We had a hard time winning challenges and being first to drop down balls. They put a lot of numbers behind the ball and made it very difficult to break through.”

Although the Skyhawks outshot CSU Pueblo, most of the shots didn’t challenge ThunderWolves goalkeeper Ryan Nun.

Fort Lewis’ first chance came from freshman forward Anton Hjalmarsson. The RMAC player and freshman of the year found himself streaking down the left side of the field on a breakaway after a pass was intercepted in the midfield. Hjalmarsson put a shot on goal but it didn’t have much power and was easily saved by Nun.

The physical nature of the game was evident from the start, with the packed grandstands groaning or cheering almost every minute on a tackle or fight for the ball.

CSU Pueblo put pressure on the Skyhawks’ back line in the first 20 minutes, resulting in numerous corners.

In the 26th minute, that pressure finally paid off. A ThunderWolves corner went long and was headed back toward the far post by Ignatius DeMark. Campora hit DeMark’s header into the back of the net with his own head to give CSU Pueblo the lead 1-0.

Fort Lewis had some chances of nicely placed back-heeled flicks in the attacking third in the first part of the opening half.

The Skyhawks turned on the pressure at the end of the half, nearly scoring on two chances that looked to have beaten Nun but were cleared off the goal line. CSU Pueblo took the 1-0 lead into halftime.

“Early on in the first half, it just felt like it was coming,” Oberholtzer said. “The final pass was a little heavy or inaccurate, but it seemed like it was coming. We had a number of close chances where we felt like we were going to score but credit to them, their defense was strong and their goalkeeper did well to keep us off the board.”

In the second half, CSU Pueblo continued to threaten Fort Lewis, leading to freshman goalkeeper Lucas Martin making a great point-blank save in the 54th minute off a corner kick. CSU Pueblo should’ve gone up 2-0 after a cross into the 6-yard box found Jack Pascoe but he skied it in the 58th minute.

The Skyhawks had plenty of possession but couldn’t seem to find the gaps they have had in previous games. Fort Lewis tried to play lofted balls into the attacking third and little chipped balls over the heads of CSU Pueblo’s back line to no avail.

“Being on that type of stage for the first time may have been a little overwhelming,” Oberholtzer said. “We kind of strayed from our typical philosophy of how we want to play as a group. We were just a little impatient, a little frantic. We didn’t keep the ball and move the ball as crisply as we wanted to do and have tended to do.”

Martin helped keep the Skyhawks in the game with some good saves until a clearance by CSU Pueblo led to a bizarre sequence. As the cleared ball floated in the air, both Fort Lewis defenders let up as if they expected Martin to come off his line. He didn’t and Campora caught up, got the ball and kicked it past Martin to give CSU Pueblo a 2-0 lead in the 76th minute.

After the game, Oberholtzer said he thought Fort Lewis did enough to secure a spot in the NCAA Division II tournament but wasn’t convinced.

The Skyhawks will find out their fate at 5 p.m. Monday as the selection show will air on ncaa.com.