For those familiar with the Montezuma-Cortez High School soccer team’s vast improvements over the past several weeks, it was not surprising when the team in orange and black defeated Ridgway, 2-1, on Tuesday.
For everyone else however, the Panthers’ victory was anything expected after the team lost to Ridgway, 5-0, earlier this season.
“It’s great,” said M-CHS junior Alden Adams, when asked about his team’s win. “Ridgway is one of the best teams that we’ve played, and last time we played them, we lost 5-0. It’s great to come back and win against them.”
While pinning down a single key to the Panthers’ victory would be impossible given that so many players contributed, the ability of the team’s defense to maintain its shape and stymie Ridgway’s offensive attack was of paramount importance.
Time and time again, Ridgway players attempted to mount attacks in M-CHS’ zone, and time and time again, senior Jackson Byerly, junior Tyler Cutrone, sophomore Bruce Cudkowicz or another Panthers’ defender turned their opponents away.
“We need to keep a shape, and we can’t stab,” said Byerly. “We made some changes in our defensive line, and that helped a lot.”
Although solid scoring opportunities were few and far between for the Panthers, who at times struggled to maintain possession of the ball, M-CHS made the most of its opportunities and benefited from a few breakaway opportunities.
The first of those breakaways came in the game’s eighth minute when Byerly sent a long pass from deep in the M-CHS zone toward the feet of Adams, who raced three strides ahead of Ridgway’s defenders and fired a low shot around Ridgway’s goalkeeper and inside the left post.
As M-CHS fans cheered their team’s goal, Adams raised his arms into the air as if to express the mix of excitement and relief that comes when players successfully convert much easier said than done scoring opportunities.
“I’ve missed a lot of super-close goals (this season),” said Adams. “I just shot it and hoped for the best.”
After Ridgway made several halftime adjustments at the behest of its head coach, Jon Kornbluh, the Panthers began to find themselves on their heels, and the ball began to spend the majority of its time in the M-CHS zone.
A foul by Ridgway defenders led to an Adams free kick, however, and with his team ahead by one goal, the junior stepped to the line and drove a low shot into the left corner of the net to put his team ahead 2-0.
Five minutes later, M-CHS goalie Stevie Fuentes ensured that the game would remain scoreless when he dove to his left and deflected a hard shot by Ridgway standout Tyler Craft just left of the right post.
“I didn’t want (Craft) to score,” said Fuentes, when asked about the play. “He’s too full of himself.”
Although Ridgway’s mercurial star did eventually score in the 78th minute after dribbling around at least four M-CHS defenders in the 78th minute, the Panthers were able to maintain possession over the game’s final minutes and secure the factory.
As those in attendance cheered the home team’s result, first-year coach Dawson Emrich praised Panthers’ players for their play throughout what turned out to be the team’s first victory at the new high school’s field.
“The simple things today (were key),” the M-CHS coach said. “I told (our players) to fight and battle, and they definitely showed that they can do that. The last three weeks, we’ve really been focusing on that first touch and that possession piece. The improvement that we’ve seen in practice definitely showed today.”
With its victory, M-CHS improved to 2-7-0 on the season. Next up for the Panthers will be a home matchup against Telluride in Cortez on Sept. 18.
“If we win our remaining games, Coach (Emrich) is going to shave his beard,” said Byerly. “Making that happen is our goal.”
To say that the M-CHS team is motivated would be an understatement.