Warm up the fire engines, the white-hot Ridgway High School boys soccer team is headed to the state championship match.
The Demons, for the first time in school history, will play for a state soccer title at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City.
The Ridgway boys (11-3-3) will take on Dawson School of Lafayette (12-3-2) on the home pitch of the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer. The Class 2A championship will be broadcast live online at chsaanow.com.
Last week, when the Ridgway boys headed to Denver for the state semifinals against Fountain Valley, a law enforcement and fire department escort led the Demons’ bus out of town — complete with fire engines blasting celebratory sprays of water over the boys on the bus as they crossed the Uncompahgre River.
The Demons, in the state semifinals for the first time, promptly dispatched Fountain Valley 5-1 behind a prolific offense, along with stingy defense and goaltending.
“It’s been a really, really interesting journey,” said Ridgway head coach Jon Kornbluh, who has worked with most Demons’ players since they were 9-year-olds. “Our soccer in the last three games has been stellar.”
NO. 10 SEED
Entering the 12-team playoffs as the No. 10 seed, Ridgway blasted No. 7 Lotus School of Aurora, 5-1, Nov. 2. Next, the Demons knocked off defending state champion and No. 2 seed Crested Butte, 3-1, Nov. 6. Then came the victory over No. 3 Fountain Valley. All three playoff wins came on the road.
“We love traveling,” Kornbluh said, explaining that the Ridgway boys broke out of a mid-season malaise just in time for the dramatic playoff run. “We’re a team that loves to possess the ball. The defense has matured. … Now we’ve got a healthy balance. I like that the team has developed to play beautiful soccer.”
The Demons are avoiding in-game breakdowns, crazy mistakes and errors, he added.
“We’ve been super well organized,” he said, citing a pair of anchor goalkeepers at the back of the defense. “The fact we’ve won (in the playoffs) and how we won is a combination of elation and relief.”
Fountain Valley was victimized by the burgeoning confidence of the Demons, when four different Ridgway players scored goals in the state semifinal. Junior Christian Lindler, sophomore Ruben Kornbluh, freshman Cory Thomsen and senior Robert Beserra netted goals at Fountain Valley.
Four players also had assists.
Beserra, the leading scorer in Class 2A soccer with 39 goals this season, scored twice in the match — one goal with the right foot, one with the left.
He also logged an assist, as did teammates Collin Kendall, Andrew Winklemann and Ruben Kornbluh. Ruben Kornbluh and midfield general Jonah Kornbluh, a junior, are sons of the head coach.
On one Beserra goal, the senior collected the ball at his feet near midfield and beat three defenders in one stunning burst of speed. He finished with a precise scoring shot, low to the far corner, with the video exploding on Facebook.
THE TURNING POINT
The Ridgway head coach said the turning point in the season came in back-to-back losses to rival Telluride.
The Demons, playing down a man, lost at home to Telluride 3-2 in double overtime Oct. 15. They also drew two red cards and were forced to play Telluride again Oct. 23 without two starters. Ridgway lost 4-2.
But, Kornbluh said, the Demons dominated possession in both matches.
“That was hard for us, but it was also a huge lesson,” he added. “Something clicked for us.”
The Demons immediately rebounded with a suffocating 7-0 nonleague victory over Class 3A Pagosa Springs Oct. 26. Communication on the field improved dramatically, he said, along with the Demons’ precise passing. The playoff win at Lotus in Aurora followed.
“The victory over Crested Butte in Gunnison was a complete game-changer,” Kornbluh said of the playoff victory. The game was played in Gunnison because of snowy field conditions in Crested Butte.
The Demons had tied and lost to the Titans during the regular season.
“Psychologically, that got the monkey off our back in a big way,” he said.
Kornbluh said he alternated senior goalkeepers Kaden Forrest and Jake Copp in the playoffs. Copp is familiar as a top freestyle skier with the Telluride Ski & Snowboard Club.
“They are both mature, solid,” Kornbluh said. “Kaden has outstanding instincts. Jake is really a good athlete. … He’s comfortable in the air. Kaden has more experience.”
Both keepers and the entire Ridgway roster are healthy and available for Saturday’s state championship match, he said. Forrest will start in goal for Ridgway.
Beserra and fellow senior captain Kendall also cited the playoff win over Crested Butte as the key to the Demons’ late surge.
“It was definitely that last Crested Butte game,” Beserra said. “Once we beat Crested Butte, then our confidence rose. It was a psychological thing.”
He said the playoff victory over the defending state champions really helped the younger Demons.
“Like my younger brother (Justin) — he’s a freshman — I could tell that win helped him,” said Beserra, who’s drawn the interest of several college soccer programs, including Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction and California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California.
“Once we beat Crested Butte, a super good team, it was a burden off our backs,” said Kendall, who directs the Ridgway defense, while Beserra leads the offense. “We saw what our potential is. That’s propelled us to play the best soccer we’ve played all year.”
Kendall and Beserra also were united in praise for their coach.
“He’s been our coach for 10 years now,” said Kendall, the son of Barb Lockman and Max Kendall. “He’s always been super supportive. He’s constantly thinking about how we can get better. We definitely would not be here without him.”
Beserra wholeheartedly agreed.
“He’s made me the player I am today. Big kudos to him,” said Beserra, the son of Dina and Anthony Beserra.
Kornbluh said their opponent in Saturday’s title match, the Dawson Mustangs, will be the best team the Demons have faced this season. They watched Dawson play last week, and this week they are reviewing game videos of the Mustangs, who beat Telluride 2-0 in the state quarterfinals.
Dawson edged Denver Christian 3-2 in overtime last weekend in the semis.
“They are a physical senior-laden team. They have a very controlled possession game,” Kornbluh said. “They have three dangerous forwards with double-digit goals.”
Communication again will be the key for the Demons, he said.
Kornbluh, who coached soccer at Telluride High School 20 years ago, said former players from both Ridgway and Telluride have called to offer encouragement as the Demons go after their first state soccer title.
“Our fans have been huge for us,” he said of the Ridgway traveling show of support on the road through the playoffs. “I expect them to be there again (Saturday). This is big on a lot of levels.”
Kendall, the senior defender, said the Demons are excited about traveling again this weekend.
“It’s routine now,” Kendall said. “ … Go to I-70, go to Popeyes (Louisiana Kitchen restaurant), then hang out in the hotel room and go to the game. It’s working for us.”
They’ll head to the state championship with another fire department sendoff on Friday, sirens and water cannons blazing.
The opportunity to win the school’s first state soccer title is foremost in their minds, according to the Ridgway senior captains.
“I hope we bring this title home,” Beserra said. “And it’s Collin and my birthdays. His is on the 17th; mine’s on the 18th. So that would be a nice birthday present for both of us. That would be sick.”