By MATTHEW DAVIS
The Como Park high school boys soccer team brought the Como Park area a celebration it had never seen – a pep fest for a high school state team championship.
“I feel like it brought the community together more,” Cougars sophomore midfielder Israel Guzman said.
A packed gym of students, faculty and fans celebrated the Cougars’ recent Class A boys soccer championship from earlier in the day at the Metrodome on Thurs., Oct. 31. The Cougars (19-0-3) scored two late goals to beat the Hill-Murray Pioneers 2-1 for the school’s first-ever state title.
“It just brings a lot of joy to me to see my players who have worked so hard to be so happy,” Cougars coach Erick Erickson said. “I love them all like sons, and I’m proud of them. They give everything they got, and they always have.”
The Cougar soccer family simply exploded at state with the rapidly growing fan support. A bus full of fans came to watch the Cougars edge once-unbeaten Waseca (17-1-1) 2-1 in the quarterfinals at Saint Louis Park on Oct. 23. Erickson studied the Blue Jays thoroughly from scouting reports and had his team execute a game plan to beat them.
Five buses of fans showed up for the Cougars first game at the dome in semifinals when senior forward Seik Seik had two goals in a 2-1 win over Sartell-Saint Stephen on Oct. 28. He scored his first at 5:22 into the first half, and junior midfielder Will Kidd assisted on Seik’s second goal at 42:03. Though not a go-to goal-scorer, Seik had three of the Cougars’ four goals at the dome.
“He’s more opportunistic,” Kidd said. “He takes what he gets.”
The Cougars adjusted well to playing in the dome and on astro turf. They played only three games previously on turf. Prior to the games they held practices at Evan McMurray fields, which also has turf.
Fan support swelled to 15 buses full and around a 1,000 fans total to cheer on the Cougars in the state finals on Oct. 31. The Cougars and Pioneers had a scoreless battle going deep into the second half, and Cougars had only three shots on goal in the first half.
After the Pioneers tested Cougars senior goalkeeper Doug McCune-Zierath with three shots in a five-minutes span, Thor Will broke the tie at 65:59 with an unassisted goal. Seik padded the lead with a goal on the assist from junior midfielder Diriye Abdikarin at 73:29. Despite the closeness of the game, every player on the Cougars rosters played.
“There’s a lot of trust,” Erickson said. “We had every player contribute in the heat of competition.”
The Cougars had a team loaded with depth, tenacity and diversity. They used their whole bench in five of 22 games during the season.
“They’re ready to come off the bench do whatever needed,” Kidd said.
During the regular season, the Cougars won many close games including two overtime games on back to back days. In the second one, the Cougars trailed 1-0 until the final 30 seconds when Abdikarin knotted the game on a pass from Kidd.
“Those back-to-back overtime victories at home made the team believe they could win in any circumstance,” Erickson said.
The Cougars had a target on their back for much of the season as the No. 1 or No. 2-ranked team in Class A after the first week of competition. They started the season at No. 5. Regardless, they went unbeaten through the regular season in a tough Saint Paul City Conference and won their second consecutive conference title.
“We don’t talk about rankings,” Guzman said. “Rankings really doesn’t matter, it’s the heart you put into a game that counts.”
Playing in a new section for the section tournament with six of the top 10 teams in the state did not phase the Cougars. They knocked off No. 6 Minneapolis Washburn 2-1 and No. 4 Blake 2-0, allowing two goals for the entire tournament.
“There was some question about could we advance through the section again,” Erickson said. “But that’s again where our focus on one game at a time really helped the game.”
Roster changes also provided a challenge for the Cougars. Only five starters returned from the 2012 team, which reached the state quarterfinals and graduated 10 seniors. McCune-Zierath took over as the goalkeeper. Senior captains Ba Blue Moo and Zach Lee took the lead on defense, which helped the Cougars allow 0.8 goals per game.
“Those two played huge roles in organizing our defense, getting that back line on the same page,” Erickson said.
Senior Jonah Lerquin played outside right back for the first time. Will moved to defense after spending most of his soccer playing days at midfield.
“These guys moved unselfishly wherever they were needed to help the team,” Erickson said.
They also missed senior captain defender Yang Yeng, who had still been recovering from an ACL tear. He made the most of his senior season from the sideline, however, by being an assistant-coach-like support for his team. He helped players develop their skills.
“I couldn’t play, but I’m proud to be part of the team,” Yeng said.
This team had plenty of diversity with players from seven different countries. They speak seven different languages, and some of them are still taking English as a second language.
“We’re like one big family,” Guzman said.