AURORA — On a grassy hill located just behind the field at Legacy Stadium, they posed for pictures.
“Scoot closer,” someone yelled from behind the camera.
So the Niwot High School soccer players willingly agreed and scrunched closer.
“Now smile,” the photographer said.
But that was a tougher task. When your heart has just been broken, it’s hard to summon a smile.
The Cougars put on brave faces and endured one snapshot after another following their 1-0 loss to Cheyenne Mountain in the Class 4A state soccer championship game Tuesday at Legacy Stadium.
And then it was back to consoling each other. Hugs seemed to soothe the loss somewhat. Well, as much as can be expected.
“I’m sad,” sophomore forward Jenna Hayes said. “But I’m not disappointed.”
How could the Cougars feel even an ounce of disappointment? No one expected the 14th-seeded Cougars to earn a place in the state finals.
“No one except us,” Niwot coach Jeremy Pinard said. “That’s why this loss stings right now.”
The sting should lessen with time. It should subside in the months to come when the Cougars (13-5-2) realize all they’ve accomplished. The Cougars made an improbable run through the tournament, beating the No. 3 seed (Ralston Valley), No. 6 seed (Liberty) and the No. 2 seed (Greeley West) along the way.
But the fourth-seeded Indians weathered a strong wind and Niwot’s relentless attack in the first half. Once Cheyenne Mountain kept the game scoreless at halftime, it was advantage Indians.
“We had to take advantage of that wind,” Pinard said. “But we didn’t.”
It certainly wasn’t from a lack of effort. Hayes almost scored with the game not even 40 seconds old. She broke free and was one-on-one with Cheyenne keeper Whitney Hough. However, Hayes drilled a left-footed shot right into Hough’s arms. There would be other chances, but Niwot couldn’t sneak in a goal.
“In warm-ups, we were cracking the ball into the net with the wind at our backs,” senior Kara Moyer said. “We dominated the first half, but we didn’t take advantage of it.”
In the second half, the Indians took control. They kept constant pressure on the Cougars until finally a tiny crack in Niwot’s defensive armor presented itself.
In the 57th minute, Cheyenne Mountain senior Megan Stinar sent a corner kick into the box and sophomore Karly Findorff put a head on it for her 15th, and most memorable, goal of the season.
“It was a good goal,” Pinard said. “She was able to get open.”
That goal was significant for two reasons. Not only was it the game winner, the goal was the only one allowed by Niwot throughout its five-game playoff run. The Cougars went 406 minutes, 29 seconds without allowing anything in the net.
“My personal goal was to allow no goals during the playoffs,” said senior goalkeeper Jessica Steinberg, who had a sensational postseason. “I’m just real proud of this team. We played tough.”
Still, this loss was tough to take.
It’s the second time in four years Niwot has finished as state runner up. The Cougars lost to Mullen by the same score in 2002. Meanwhile, the Indians captured their first crown since winning a Class 3A title in 1997.
“I’m very disappointed, and very proud of this team,” Moyer said as she wiped back tears. “We had a great season, but this is hard.”
Senior defender Ginny Maddox couldn’t agree more. After the loss, she sat in lane eight of the track and buried her face in her hands.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done,” Maddox said. “Second place is not bad at all.
“But it’s still not the outcome we wanted.”