Roaring Fork’s Jeffrey Candela (12) fights for the ball. Photo by Sue Rollyson

When two strong teams face each other in knockout soccer, the result tends to depend either on one moment of brilliance or one minor mistake. 

For long stretches of Tuesday’s playoff game against the Liberty Common Eagles, the Roaring Fork Rams seemed one moment of magic away from scoring the goal that would send them into the state quarterfinals. Cruelly, it was a mistake that proved to be the game’s decisive moment. 

Despite mixed starts to their seasons, both Roaring Fork and Liberty Common came into this playoff matchup on winning streaks. Since falling 1-0 to Summit High on October 10th, the Rams had scored 29 goals in their last five games, all victories, including a 3-0 thumping of Timnath to begin their playoff campaign last week. Meanwhile, the Eagles had won their last six games by a combined score of 34-4. 

As if they were in need of more motivation to win, the Rams were also determined to avenge their 3-0 loss to Liberty Common in the semifinals of last year’s 3A playoffs. 

Nerves were clearly frayed in the opening 10 minutes of the game. Both teams were sloppy in possession and found it difficult to establish any sort of rhythm. Just as the Rams began to settle down and dictate the game, a clever ball from winger Jacob Barlow put Yusbani Duarte through on goal, but with only the goalkeeper to beat, Duarte poked a tame shot wide. 

Roaring Fork’s midfield trio of Foster Hayes, Eli Cohen, and Josh Hernandez controlled the pace of the game in their characteristic technical fashion during the first half, though it did not lead to any goals. 

Early in the second half the Eagles set out to change that. Thirty seconds in, Liberty Common’s Andrew Dutoit was given a yellow card for his rugby-esque tackle on counterpart Foster Hayes, but the message was clear: the Eagles were going to make their presence felt in midfield. 

Despite the uptick in intensity, the Rams still managed to create chances. In the 51st minute Yusbani Duarte burned his defender down the left flank and snuck a shot around the goalkeeper. It looked like the piece of magic that Roaring Fork needed to win the game. As the ball crept closer to the goal line, to everyone’s surprise Eagles defender PJ Wrona’s left foot somehow managed to hook the ball out of danger. The Rams insisted the ball had crossed the line, but the referee waved play on. 

In their attacking third, the Eagles made frequent use of long balls, but the Roaring Fork defense, led by senior goalkeeper Noel Richardson, proved up to the task of clearing the ball each time. 

In the 62nd minute, one such long ball took a funny bounce off the ground and struck the outstretched hand of Ram’s defender Gabriel Salas in the box, giving the referee no choice but to award a penalty to Liberty Common. Senior Brady Poore stepped up and sent Richardson the wrong way to give the Eagles a 1-0 lead. 

With a quarter of an hour left to save their season, the Rams became more desperate in their search for a goal. Despite coming back from being a goal down three times when they last faced the Eagles, the Rams were unable to find the goal they needed to extend their playoff run. 

With the final seconds ticking off the clock, Foster Hayes created one last chance for himself but a Liberty Common defender threw himself in front of the shot and the game, as well as Roaring Fork’s season, came to an end. 

Coach Nick Forbes was somber but grateful to his team in the aftermath of the loss. “This team is so much fun to watch,” he said. “We created chances aplenty. As the game goes on and we don’t take those chances, things get a little rushed and frazzled, and then it builds and builds and builds and that’s something we never overcame this year.”

Losing thirteen seniors to graduation will force Coach Forbes and the Roaring Fork Rams into a major rebuild next season. No matter what style of play takes shape, Forbes is adamant that one principle remains the focus: “We win and lose as a team. We have to look at ourselves as a whole and not just one individual, and take it on the chin.”

After a hard fought victory away from home, Liberty Common will take on Colorado Academy, the state’s top-ranked 3A team, on Nov. 4. 

Despite Roaring Fork’s loss, playoff soccer is alive and well on the Western Slope. On Tuesday the Rifle Bears beat Fort Lupton 2-0 to set up a quarterfinal with Peak to Peak, and the Coal Ridge Titans upset Kent Denver in a 3-2 victory and will face Frontier Academy in their quarterfinal.