After a year filled with success, the Columbia College men's soccer team's season ended Tuesday afternoon.
The sixth-seeded Cougars lost 2-1 to the No. 11 seed University of Mobile (Ala.) in the second round of the NAIA national championship tournament in Montgomery, Ala.
Columbia College finishes the season with a 14-2-6 record, while Mobile improves to 15-4-2 and moves on to face Concordia in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
The Cougars had their best chances early in the first half of Tuesday's game. Columbia College attackers got behind the Mobile defense several times, including breakaway chances by sophomore forward Marko Paunovic and junior forward Jovan Ilic that were saved.
Midway through the second half, Mobile quickly broke the game open with two goals in just over a minute.
Mobile senior midfielder Sam Blackburn scored from the top of the box, and freshman defender Pierre Mangold followed with a goal in the 69th minute. Suddenly, the Cougars were down 2-0 and their season was in jeopardy.
Columbia College sent more attackers forward to try and generate more scoring chances. It managed to cut the deficit to one in the 80th minute on Paunovic's team-leading 14th goal of the season, but the Cougars were unable to notch the tying goal and were eliminated from the tournament.
"We started playing with that urgency we've been looking for more consistently; I don't know why we had to wait until we're two goals down," Columbia College coach John Klein said. "We got a goal we needed, but I think the guys just wore down by the end."
Senior defender Nikola Velickovic said he and fellow defender Dan Rapp felt the emotion of their season and college careers ending, staying on the field in a tearful embrace after time ran out.
Velickovic said that the team played well, but not scoring early in the game proved costly.
"We missed our chances to score and they didn't," he said. "It's a different game if we get that early goal. When you're on this stage playing the best 16 teams in the NAIA, you can't afford to miss opportunities."
The Cougars lose four seniors to graduation, a core that has led Columbia College to three NAIA National Championship tournament appearances in their four years with the Cougars. They lose three starting defenders in Rapp, two-time first-team All-Conference member Tom Vincenc, and Velickovic, a three-time All-American, as well as starting midfielder Andres Acosta.
The Cougars return two double-digit goal scorers, including Paunovic and junior midfielder Rafael Ramos, who had 10 goals during the season and was named the American Midwest Conference Newcomer of the Year. They will also likely get sophomore midfielder Liam Cain, who played in only seven games, back from a knee injury that ended his season. All-Conference goalkeeper Matt McKenna will also return for the Cougars.
Still, Klein said his team will look to add more depth and more playmakers to make the attack more dangerous for next year.
"We've got a good core coming back, but you need seven or eight quality players capable of playing at the national tournament to take that next step," Klein said.
Though Velickovic's career at Columbia College is now over, he said he thinks the program is in good hands.
"Now that us seniors are gone, there are going to be new guys to step up and do big things for next season," Velickovic said. "I'm sad that we didn't advance farther, but I'm glad I get to go out after a really nice, successful season."
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.