TAMPA – It was going to take a big effort to derail No.1 Fort Lewis pursuit of the Division II Men’s national championship.
In a game that flowed one way and the other, No.9 Lees-McRae almost accomplished it, but a late goal by David Barden gave the Skyhawks a 1-0 victory on Saturday evening at Pepin-Rood Stadium.
After a spell of pressure had led to a Lees-McRae corner on left, the Skyhawks were able to clear and break quickly through Byron Cephers down the right. Cephers was dispossessed, but the Skyhawks held possession in the Bobcats half, and Kyle Wood’s long, angled cross from the right floated in to find Barden, whose cushioned header back across goal dropped softly into the right side-netting for the only goal of the game in the 78th minute.
“It hung up there for a while,” Barden said. “I see it floating in there, and the defenders, I don’t know if they were more concerned about me, or where the ball was going to land, but I just remember cutting around the guy, and I had to reach up and back as far as I could to find the only open space in the goal. The ‘keeper and the guy couldn’t slide in after it, so I guess I placed it perfectly.”
The victory gave the Skyhawks their second national championship, the first coming in 2005, and according to Barden gave him and the rest of his senior classmates a bit of redemption after having fallen in the 2006 final. It also meant a lot to Coach Oige Kennedy, who took over the side in July as one of the youngest head coaches in college soccer. Aged 27, Kennedy said he was thrilled to have won a title, and create a little history as the first coach to win a Division II men's national title in his first season.
“My main goal was to beat (former Fort Lewis coach) Jeremy Gunn, because he took over the team in ’99 and got beaten in the final,” Kennedy said. “Jeremy’s a mentor to me, and somebody who is a great friend, and a great person to bounce ideas off and everything else, so my motivation was to take the team in one year and win a national title. I knew we had the players to do it, and certainly it’s better being the guy making the decisions than watching the guy who makes the decisions. I take full responsibility for the success, and for the failures, so I’m absolutely delighted.”
In a tightly fought game that didn’t see many clear-cut chances, Fort Lewis had the first in the 17th minute as Fabian Kling’s header hit the right post off a free kick, Euan Purcell’s rebound header being snapped up by LMC goalkeeper Sean Paradise. As the half wore on, though, the Bobcats started to take control, Luke Perry shooting wide in the 35th minute when a through-ball wouldn’t quite settle properly for him.
LMC coach Chris Whalley said he was proud of his team’s effort, and thought that for good periods they were the better side.
“It’s a fantastic result for them,” Whalley said. “I thought we played a massive part in a very, very entertaining final. I thought we were a little unlucky at times, I thought we were the better team for long periods in the game, but that’s the game of soccer.”
The best chance for the Bobcats to take the lead came in the 60th minute when Berin Boracic latched onto a ball flicked over the top of the Skyhawks’ defense. Boracic had his shot saved as Fort Lewis goalkeeper Zane Wells came off his line to deny him, but the rebound came to David Palmer, who saw his shot cleared off the line by Dale Parker.
The Skyhawks were able to hold the Bobcats at bay for the final 10 minutes though, the only real opportunity for Lees-McRae being ruled out for offside, leaving the Skyhawks and their vocal contingent of fans headed back to Colorado with the championship.
“Everything balanced out, and it looked like it was our year all season,” Kennedy said. “We’re just glad to finally get the reward at the end of it.”