The NAIA National Tournament is a punishing week-long ordeal of soccer full of upsets, glory, despair and everything in between.
Columbia College men’s soccer coach John Klein knows the event well. He’s experienced the glory of reaching it eight times, including this season, in his 19-year career coaching the Cougars.
He’s also felt the misery associated with it, suffering first round exits, blowout losses and even a defeat in penalties to the eventual national champion Wayland Baptist in 2017.
But even in his illustrious career, CC’s all-time leader in soccer wins has never been to the tournament semifinal round. The Cougars haven’t had the honor of being one of the nation’s final four teams, always falling a few games, goals or even kicks short.
After a 2-1 win Wednesday in a rematch against Oklahoma Wesleyan, a team hell-bent on giving out the coldest form of revenge by ending CC’s greatest-ever season, Klein can kiss that streak of shortcomings goodbye.
The No. 2-seeded Cougars clinched their first-ever berth in the final four with the win in Irvine, California, completing their second comeback in as many days.
After a grueling double overtime win against Baker (Kan.) on Tuesday, CC roared back barely over 24 hours later to beat the Eagles for the second time this season and with higher stakes.
CC beat OWU 3-1 in Columbia on Sept. 13 in one of the Cougars’ finest performances of the year. For Klein, unsurprisingly, Wednesday’s win is even better.
“So much went into today,” Klein said. “We played quality, organized soccer for the entire match and then inspired soccer. We watched video (of the Baker game), of all our mistakes from last night. I didn’t want it to be negative, but I wanted them to see what did not work. And they all bought in to the adjustments and the game plan. To come back on a team like Oklahoma Wesleyan, that just takes some guts and some heart.”
Forward Joe Spotanski — Columbia’s season-long super sub with eight goals off of the bench — played as a man aflame. He equalized with a 68th minute goal after the Eagles’ Khesanio Hall scored in the 38th minute to originally put them ahead.
11 minutes after his goal, Spotanski fought back possession from a OWU defender and played a perfect ball to the left side of the 18-yard box to midfielder Ximo Gil. The Spaniard took one touch and did the rest from there to put CC ahead for good.
It’s not just his commitment to performing when the game is on the line, said Spotanski — it’s the whole team’s commitment. That, he says, is why CC sits at 23-0 and two wins from a national title.
“We’re here to win a ring and win a trophy,” Spotanski said. “Everybody’s working their ass off. From the beginning of the year ... guys that have been out of shape have gone out and run on their own. We got the heart and we have the fitness to keep digging and getting that goal to fight back. We’re not done and we know that.”
Spotanski, Gil and the rest of his substitutes off of the bench had bad games against Baker, but Klein thought the group’s performance against Oklahoma Wesleyan was “outstanding” this time around.
Spotanski and Gil got on the scoresheet, but Klein also lauded the performances of other fill-ins like Parker Moon and Juan Pablo Agredo. All disrupted the Eagles’ flow and contributed heavily to chipping away at the deficit by going after balls and getting in good positions.
“We were not good last night. It might have been one of our weakest performances of the year,” Klein said. “We made no subs until 20 or 25 minutes left or something like that. And then the next four guys that came in really brought some intensity. (They) were unreal to raise our level and get the excitement going for the last 20 minutes. You could just feel the momentum on the bench.”
Klein said this was the best moment in his coaching career — for now. But he has no plans to be done yet. Columbia will play unseeded Hastings in the semifinals at 8:30 p.m. Friday with a trip to the national championship game on the line.
Klein and his assistants stayed back to scout those two teams while CC athletic director James Arnold took his players out to a celebratory dinner, further exemplifying Klein’s laser-focus on the ultimate prize.
“Certainly, it’s the greatest feeling. But there’s more work to be done,” Klein said. “It’s not just good enough to be in the final four now and to celebrate it. Now we’ve got to work and dig in and find a way to get to a final. I’m not comfortable celebrating at this point, we’ve got work to do.”