DENVER – The University of Colorado soccer team finally tasted victory over No. 15 and fourth-seeded Denver when it was most important – in the first round of the 2013 NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship.
With less than seven minutes remaining in regulation, senior standout Anne Stuller netted the game-winner to give the Buffs’ the 1-0 victory.
In Stuller and her fellow seniors’ time at CU, the Buffs had never gotten a win over their in-state rival Denver. That changed Saturday in front of a crowd of 1,394 at Denver’s CIBER Field. In just their third win in Denver, the Buffs reclaim the slight series edge over the Pioneers, 9-8-1. The Buffs are now a perfect 2-0 against the Pioneers in NCAA play.
The Buffs got further revenge on the Pioneers after DU claimed a 3-0 win at CIBER Field earlier in the season to put an end to the Buffs’ recording-setting start of six wins to begin the 2013 campaign.
After remaining winless in their final four games of the season, the Buffs improve to 13-6-2 overall (after finishing tied for sixth in the Pac-12 Conference with a league mark of 4-5-2). CU advances to the Round of 32 for the first time since 2007 (when the Buffs fell to No. 3 Portland in the second round of tournament play). The win was the Buffs’ first over a ranked opponent since 2010, when the squad took down No. 12 UCLA and No. 6 Texas A&M in back-to-back games.
Denver suffers just its second loss of the season, falling to 18-2-1 as its impressive season is put to an end.
“First, I want to congratulate Denver on a great season,” CU head coach Danny Sanchez said. “They’re worthy of the four seed they got. They had a great season pre-conference and during the conference. As far as the match today, like I told the team, we’re really proud of what this team has accomplished. Last year they finished tied for last place in the Pac-12. They’ve really bought in and done everything we’ve asked them. We’re really proud, especially of our four senior starters, but really everybody. We’re really pleased that we’re able to represent the University of Colorado on this stage.
“Today’s match could have gone either way. I felt both teams played very well. Big moments take special players, and Anne Stuller’s a special player. She came up and made the play when we needed it. Brunner and Lizzy (Herzl) and Hayley (Hughes) and Bianca (Jones) and Alex (Huynh) were rock solid in the back against Kristin Hamilton and Nicholette DiGiacomo and all their dynamic attacking players. We’re just real, real happy to have the opportunity to move on to Florida next week.”
The Buffs just edged the Pioneers in nearly every category. CU outshot DU 15 to 13 (with six on goal to DU’s three). CU also took three more corner kicks (seven to four), helping set up more shooting opportunities at the net. The Buffs’ backline held DU’s two leading scorers and record-breaking seniors Kristen Hamilton and Nicholette DiGiacomo (who helped Denver become one of just 16 Division I teams with multiple double-digit scorers) to just three shots combined, with none on goal.
In the 84th minute, Brie Hooks was fouled just outside the left corner of the box, setting up the free kick that would give the Buffs the game. Stuller, who’s become known for her killer strike, bent her shot over the wall of defenders, getting the ball to deflect and reach the far post.
“That was all Brie,” Stuller said of the free kick setup that led to the goal. “She’d been putting the defense on their toes all night. She’s so dangerous out of the midfield; she’s really dangerous anywhere. She just came up and attacked the defenders and created a foul. Hats off to her – that was big time by her.”
Stuller, who says her team has been a “treat to play with” and fights every game, continues to shine in her senior season. She adds to her CU single season records with 89 shots and 52 shots on goal. Stuller also ties Katie Griffin for second most points in single season at CU, with 25.
In what has been her best season to date, goalkeeper and co-captain Annie Brunner grabbed three saves and posted her ninth clean sheet of the season, her career-best. She and 2003 Big 12 Championship team member Jessica Keller are the only two Buffs to have at least nine shutouts in a single season. Brunner is now the second-winningest keeper in program history with 32 in her career. Brunner has contributed to 24 shutouts in her career, and in 2013 has posted career-best season totals of 78 saves, a 3.71 save percentage and 0.98 goals-against average.
“I knew it was going to come down to a one-goal game,” Brunner said. “Going into the game, I was just on extreme focus like, ‘Hey I’m going to make one big save this game, maybe two, and we’re going to get one and that’s how we’ll win the game.’ Sure enough, DU started putting a lot of pressure on us in the back and that’s just when you’ve got to step up. Our defense did great blocking shots, and I just had to save a couple of them and that’s how you win.”
In the opening minutes of the game, the Buffs worked to press the net, getting two corner kicks, though the Denver defense prevented them from any looks at the net.
Denver took the first shot of the game in the fourth minute. A wide Nikki Pappalardo found Francesca Garzelloni at the front of the net, but Hayley Hughes forced the ball wide. Hughes was at it again, this time on offense, finding her shot blocked in the 10th minute. The Pioneers continued to make moves in the opening 15 minutes, with DiGiacomo finding an open look in front of the net, but blasting the ball out of the park.
After focusing on defense, the Buffs finally got back into Pioneer territory, with Hooks responding to DiGiacomo, but rushing her shot wide. The Buffs had one of their best opportunities of the half in the 18th minute. From deep left, Hooks found Emily Paxton at the right. Paxton sent a through ball to Stuller at the right post. Stuller aimed her shot at the net, forcing DU keeper Cassidy Rey to dive for the ball at the far post. Though the ball remained in play, a DU defender came into the net to clear the ball.
In the 25th minute, the Pioneers got another opportunity when Pappalardo beat her defender to get the ball in front of the net. After a few touches, Garzelloni hit just over the crossbar.
The Buffs dominated offensively in the final 15 minutes before the break. In the 34th minute, Hooks found her target and made Rey claim her second save. Following a hard foul on Madison Krauser, the Buffs got a free kick off from about 40 yards deep off a late call. Though DU initially got the ball, CU recovered, and Stuller got blocked at the net. CU would take another shot and corner in the final six minutes, but were unable to get a shot past the DU defense.
In the final two minutes before the break, the teams traded free kicks from midfield. DiGiacomo got another shot off for the Pioneers, but the game would remain scoreless at the half. (The Buffs are now 7-5-1 this season when entering halftime in a scoreless tie).
Stuller once again began the half with tough offensive pressure, forcing a corner kick that got to Paxton, whose shot went wide. Though Denver spent a lot of time in CU territory, they were only able to get one shot off and take one corner in the first 10 minutes, though their shot was a big one. In the 51st minute, a CU turnover in front of the DU net nearly cost them a goal. With lots of action and players going down in the box, Brunner grabbed a great save of a Garzelloni shot. The Buffs had several other strong defensive plays, with Bianca Jones helping the Buffs get a goal kick following a DU corner.
CU then went on a shooting spree, taking five shots and three corners in less than 12 minutes, while holding DU to playing defense. The Buffs played together in the 58th minute, with Jerman getting a good read to set up a play that would find Krauser at the left edge. Krasuer rushed in and shot, getting the ball to the center of the net, where Rey grabbed the save. Krauser was at it again just two minutes later, hitting the ball wide this time.
In the 64th minute, Jerman and Brooke Rice worked together to get Jerman in front of the net. She took a close range shot that was saved by Rey’s finger tips. The Buffs then got a corner, and Lizzy Herzl’s header got blocked. The Buffs kept up the pressure, with Jerman this time getting blocked. The Buffs got two more corner kicks, but Denver was finally ready to get on the attack.
It wasn’t until the 72nd minute when DU’s Hamilton was able to take her first (and only) shot. She got an open look from close range, but Brunner was ready as the shot went high. Denver was able to attack again at 75:01, with Pappalardo forcing a save from close range. The Pioneers continued to make the Buffs’ defense work, forcing another great save from Brunner in the 79th minute.
Then, the momentum began to turn the other way, as Denver got back to back fouls that would help spur the Buffs’ scoring drive. In the 81st minute, Alex Huynh took a free kick that was an easy grab for Rey. DU would reclaim possession and get a free kick from 25 yards out, but the Buffs’ came up with big back-to-back blocks.
CU would then rush from one side to the other, with Hooks, who was forcing a lot of aggressive plays out of the DU defense, going down just outside the left corner of the box. Stuller would put her golden boot to use to shoot over the wall and score off a deflection to give the Buffs the 1-0 lead.
“If I strike the ball cleanly and if I get it over the wall, there’s a good chance it’s going to get a rebound or go in,” Stuller said. “That was my focus – just getting over the wall, but not getting over the net. That’s what I try to do when I hit the ball.”
Denver would send everyone forward in the final six minutes, taking three more shots and two corners, but the Buffs would hold strong in the closing minutes to claim the win.
CU joins UCLA and Stanford as the only Pac-12 teams to advance to the Round of 32. With the win over Denver, and a loss by Colorado College on Saturday, CU is also the only in-state team to advance. CU will travel to Tallahassee, Fla. to take on BYU (15-4-1), who defeated Weber State 4-0 in their first round, on Thursday, Nov. 21. Though the teams have never met on neutral ground, BYU holds a 3-0-1 lead over CU.
“They’re very good,” Sanchez said. “They’re co-champions in the West Coast Conference, which is one of the top leagues. Obviously I’m familiar with them from back in the Mountain West days. They’re very athletic. They’re very direct. They’re very good. They were probably border line to get a seed as well this year. We know the challenge of that. We’ve actually watched a little bit of them hoping that we’d have the opportunity to advance and face them. We know they’re a great team with a great coach – Jennifer Rockwood’s been there since the start of the program. They’re a perennial tournament team, and we’ll have our hands full, but we’ll start worrying about them tomorrow at practice.”