If a team’s record is 22-0 overall, it’s bound to have had some hairy moments in its season along the way.
So even as No. 2 Columbia College men’s soccer — the undefeated team in question — conceded in the 12th minute to Baker (Kan.) in the NAIA National Tournament game Tuesday, it wasn’t like the Cougars hadn’t been in this situation before.
Four times prior, the Cougars had been at least one goal down in a game. And each time the Cougars came back to win. But this game against Baker was different.
The Wildcats didn’t just get a lucky goal and hold on for dear life, they dominated the match. They outshot Columbia 21-8 and had 13 corner kicks to the Cougars’ one. No team all season had ever taken the Cougars out to the woodshed like the Wildcats.
But there’s a reason why Columbia is the nation’s only perfect team. In every situation and every stage, the Cougars have roared back with a commitment and passion to win arguably unlike any other squad in the nation.
And in Tuesday’s 2-1 double overtime win against Baker in Irvine, California, to send Columbia to the tournament quarterfinals, its mindset was no different.
Defender Caden Castello scored his first goal of the season off a corner kick in the 39th minute, after which CC spent over an hour of game time protecting its net from a barrage of Baker attacks.
With 6:23 to go in double overtime — the game’s 104th minute — forward Matheus Albuquerque scored from about 10 yards out with just the second shot on goal all game for CC, completing the comeback and sending him and his teammates into a celebratory frenzy.
“The soccer was sloppy and so-so at times today,” said CC coach John Klein. But even though he said that Baker was the better squad Tuesday, the belief his men have in themselves set them apart.
“I told their coach that they were the best team today. But the best team does not always win a soccer game,” Klein said. “We weren’t great ... definitely wasn’t our best soccer. But the boys deserve to be here and they had an opportunity and they hung in there. The boys still believe.”
With the exception of the goalscorers, Columbia has one man to thank for keeping its national title bid intact: Ryan Harrisskitt. The senior goalkeeper had a stellar performance in net with 11 saves, four or five of which Klein said were “spectacular” and three of which came in overtime.
Even a defense as good as Columbia’s, who lead the NAIA with 14 shutouts, is prone to the occasional off day. But if Harrisskitt’s superb form continues, perhaps the Cougars shouldn’t be so worried if teams figure out their back line.
“I’ve always been confident in me own abilities,” Harrisskitt said in his thick English accent. “Some of the times things go your way, and some of the times they don’t, so you never know when the next bad game is going to be. But today was a perfect game (for me), so no complaints.”
Klein was grateful for Harrisskitt’s performance, saying that his team’s struggles covering defensive assignments Tuesday could’ve led to more Baker goals. But due to the Englishman being a brick wall in net, the Cougars could take their time scoring both an equalizer and an eventual winner.
“I have to give him a ton of credit,” Klein said of his keeper. “I don’t want to say every one of those (shots) was that threatening ... but they could’ve found the net a couple more times. I don’t think we were terrific at identifying (defensively) ... (but he) was very good overall.”
Columbia has no time to waste before its next elimination game: a matchup with No. 7 Oklahoma Wesleyan, who defeated Madonna (Mich.) 3-1 in another second round game Tuesday.
Wednesday’s match against Oklahoma Wesleyan will be a rematch in which the Eagles will be seeking revenge. CC beat them 3-1 on Sept. 13 in Columbia in one of the Cougars’ finest performances of the season.
Columbia’s Tuesday evening consisted of game watching, film viewing and resting up for chance to reach the semifinal round for the first time in school history.
“I think what we’ve got to look at first is ourselves, because we just weren’t quite good enough on the day,” Klein said. “I don’t think we were tremendously organized like we have been all year. We’ve got to figure a few things out, but overall ... we’re happy to be in the round of eight and going to do everything we can to get to a final four.”