When the wind went against the Fort Lewis College women’s soccer team Tuesday, so did the match.
The Skyhawks hosted Westminster College in a quarterfinal round game of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament Tuesday at Dirks Field on a windy day on Rim Drive in Durango. Both teams struggled to control the ball with wind gusts routinely around 30 mph and as strong as 40 mph. The two teams finished an evenly-played first half scoreless with six shots each, but the second half would be dominated by the visiting Griffins.
After tallying numerous chances only to be stopped by the FLC defense and goalkeeper Katherine Dunbabin, Westminster College finally broke through in the 86th minute when Ellie Echeverio brought the ball up the left side of the box and then fed a perfect pass back to the top to a waiting Alexa Maple. Only minutes after getting off a weak shot in a one-versus-one situation in which she didn’t challenge Dunbabin, Maple fired a blistering shot into the upper right of the goal past the outstretched arms of Dunbabin for the game winning-goal.
“The wind is tough here, and you can see it’s a tale of two halves,” Westminster head coach Tony LeBlanc said after his team’s 1-0 win. “We pushed the pace, got quality shots and finally got one to go. Relief.
“I could see the angle when (Maple) got her shot. She’s our main player, and I was surprised she didn’t make her one-versus-one, honestly. But I would take a goal late over a goal early any day.”
FLC head coach Damian Clarke wouldn’t use wind as an excuse for the loss, as the Skyhawks (4-2-3) were outshot 10-1 in the second half and never got a chance to play in the attacking third with any consistency.
Aubrey Swindle routinely would beat her defender to push the ball into Westminster territory, but the FLC forward couldn’t find any support from teammates making a run when she looked to pass the ball, many times with the nearest teammate still 25 yards behind the play.
“To be honest, we didn’t perform,” Clarke said. “There are levels to being as good as we expect to be, and it’s easier to go somewhere else and play on the road sometimes when there is no pressure on you as the hosting team. We didn’t negotiate the pressure at home well against a good team.
“We worked on shape all week, and our shape was horrible. Something went wrong with how we were getting the message across as coaches.”
Clarke said the Skyhawks wouldn’t have been in the game at all if not for Dunbabin, the sophomore goalkeeper from Broomfield who made 10 saves with five in each half.
In the 52nd minute, Westminster (5-2-2) really turned up the pressure and nearly scored on three opportunities off a free kick that FLC couldn’t clear out of the box. Westminster would initially beat Dunbabin, but defender Katie Smith was there for the Skyhawks to clear the ball off the line. But the ball again fell to the Griffins, who quickly fired a shot that Dunbabin was able to save before a third shot sailed over the cross bar.
Maple had her breakaway chance off an FLC turnover in the 77th minute, but the Skyhawks’ defense did just enough to get back on her shoulder as she looked to fire a shot that would weakly bounce to Dunbabin.
Only seconds later, Dunbabin would make a brilliant save on a left-footed blast from Rebecca Wheeler, as she dove to her left and punched the ball over the frame of goal. Then, Dunbabin made another save diving to her left on a long-range shot from Brynnae Braun.
“I was really locked in,” Dunbabin said. “It was a tough game to lose. We had a lot of fight in us, and it’s tough to end it that way after all the challenges we’ve faced, but it is what it is. But I felt locked in with a lot of nerves and a lot of excitement.”
But with 4:24 to play, Maple would score the winner.
“When they scored, I was set and I saw the ball rolling to (Maple),” Dunbabin said. “She hit it while it was still rolling to her, and it was a good hit. I couldn’t get there.”
The win sent the Griffins into Friday’s semifinals against top-seed University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The loss ended the season for the Skyhawks, who will have a short time before returning to play during the traditional fall season that was postponed in 2020 until the spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dunbabin said she is eager to improve over the summer and get another chance in the fall with all but two Skyhawks slated to return.
“I think the expectations have changed for us because of how well we played this spring,” Clarke said. “Last year, we barely got into the tournament, and this year, we were a two-seed. There’s a lot to look forward to, but there’s a lot to get better at, too.”