Displaying the exciting, attacking brand of soccer they are known for under Head Coach Gabe Bernstein, the No. 1-seeded Colorado Academy Mustangs defeated the Peak to Peak Charter School Pumas, seeded No. 7, by a score of 2–1 to take the 2022 CHSAA Boys 3A State Championship in a match at Weidner Field, in Colorado Springs, on November 12.
The win ties CA for second all-time in state soccer titles, with a total of six. CA last owned the championship in 2020.
“We’ve been waiting for two years for this,” acknowledges Junior Simeon Woldeyohannes. The talented forward, CA’s leading regular-season scorer with 14 goals, notched both of CA’s goals against Peak to Peak. “We’re back, and we’re so excited. It’s something I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
“Two wins in three years is dominant,” observes CA Athletic Director Bill Hall. “These Mustangs are coached in all the right ways, and their play shows it. They worked hard, played tough, and carried themselves with class all season.”
“I am so thrilled for this group of players and my coaching staff,” says Bernstein. “Watching all of their hard work culminate in a very special moment on Saturday as they lifted a state championship trophy—it just never gets old.”
“It takes so much effort and concentration to navigate tricky playoff games,” Bernstein continues, “and in my experience as a coach, success usually comes down to execution during critical moments of the season. Players on this year’s team embraced their roles and stepped up in a variety of ways—sharing the responsibility of showing up in the big moments for one another. It’s a very special moment for this program. I am just so proud of everyone who has been involved in the season.”
A solemn start
The CA Varsity Soccer team perhaps did not arrive at this championship Saturday exactly how they would have planned it. In their November 9 semifinal match, which they won by a score of 2–1 against No. 4-ranked Liberty Common High School, a Liberty Common player and a CA player were involved in a frightening head-to-head collision partway through the first half of the game, sending both to the hospital. While the CA player, Senior Captain Ezra Goldstein, suffered a gash to the ear that required more than 20 stitches, the Liberty Common player, team captain Jay LaMastra, was knocked unconscious and rushed off the field by ambulance. He remains in the hospital receiving treatment for a brain injury, and CA players wore white armbands in his honor during their game against Peak to Peak.
The incident no doubt influenced the course of the semifinal match, leaving the members of both teams shaken, and CA’s squad feeling far from clear-eyed in advance of the championship.
“The day after the semifinal,” recalls Bernstein, “it was obvious to me that the players were not only physically exhausted, but also emotionally drained from the highs and lows of the night before. Of course they were excited about making it to the state final, but they were also hurting for a player from the opposing team who was still struggling in the hospital.”
“As a coach, it was a difficult needle to thread,” Bernstein continues. “I had a conversation with them about allowing themselves to feel both of those things—the concern and the elation—while staying focused on the opportunity before them to do something really special for themselves. I wanted them to honor how they were feeling, but to understand that the task at hand was recovering, preparing for Saturday, and playing for the championship.”
As the title game began, a tribute to the injured LaMastra played on Weidner Field’s giant screen, and in an online journal tracking his hospital journey, LaMastra’s father, Joe, thanked supporters. “To the Colorado soccer community, I couldn’t overstate how amazing you are. You’re truly exceptional people. … Colorado Academy boys, I’m rooting for you; come out swinging, ready to fight.”
Pumped up by a supportive contingent of CA fans—clad in all black to match the team’s uniforms—in the Weidner stands, the Mustangs did indeed come out swinging, and they were clearly ready for the fight versus Peak to Peak on a clear and chilly afternoon.
Right from the start, CA’s forward line launched multiple, highly organized attacks against the Peak to Peak goal, and they threatened early and often through the opening minutes of the game. CA’s Senior keeper, Matthew Kintzele, and his experienced defensive line solidly held down the fort against any Puma advances.
Senior Captains Lee Gastis, forward, and Ben Rockmore, defender, took early shots on the Pumas’ net, but it was Woldeyohannes who made the first successful strike less than 15 minutes into the half. A Rockmore pass to Sophomore forward Christoff Zimmerman enabled a set-up right in front of the goal to Gastis, who battled for control against Peak to Peak defenders and helped clear the way for the Woldeyohannes shot.
Energized by the first CA goal, fans urged the team on, and Woldeyohannes surprised the Pumas—and probably everyone else in Weidner—with a solo second goal just a minute after his first, giving the Mustangs a 2–0 lead.
A desperate Peak to Peak squad scrambled through the rest of the first half to penetrate CA’s defenses, finally earning a penalty kick that resulted in the team’s only goal against the Mustangs. The Pumas did not have enough to even the score in the first half, and the teams left the field at halftime with CA’s lead at 2–1.
The second half saw a gritty, scoreless battle between the two teams, as CA worked to hold onto a one-goal lead and Peak to Peak sent their attackers forward repeatedly, only to be turned back by Kintzele and Senior defenders Rockmore, Bowen Smith, and Teddy McPeek.
In the end, the Mustangs’ 2–1 lead held up, giving the team the title. The elated players came together in the center of Weidner Field to celebrate, and they held the championship trophy aloft as they ran toward the CA fans cheering in the stands to acknowledge their support. It was the second trophy for CA in just over a week: on November 2, the Varsity Field Hockey squad captured their own state crown.
According to Woldeyohannes, “Throughout the game, we all got a lot of inspiration from Jay [LaMastra], and this win was for him, as well.”
“I’m so proud of this team,” says Bernstein. “Our players, our coaches, our field managers, everybody put their hearts and souls into their jobs, and this win is just a reflection of their hard work. … The program is getting to a point where we are becoming a team that is challenging every year. That’s the most important thing; you just want to keep raising the bar.”
A core group of leaders
The team’s Senior leaders were a key factor in the victory over Peak to Peak, Bernstein believes. These include the three team captains—Gastis, forward; Goldstein, midfielder; and Rockmore, defender—along with starting goalkeeper Kintzele, backup goalkeeper Colin McCoy, and defenders Smith, McPeek, and Noah Sohn.
“Two years ago,” Bernstein explains, “when these boys were in Tenth Grade, they watched as another group of Seniors, members of the Class of 2021, came together as a grade and as leaders to win CA’s last state soccer title. They have seen it done well, and they have seen what success looks like.”
Starting from the preseason early in August, says Bernstein, this core group built connections that ensured everyone on the team felt like they were playing an important role.
“The younger players look up to this group of Seniors, and they work really hard for them,” Bernstein says. “It’s almost as if they feel they have more to play for than their own success—they’re playing to honor the Seniors’ last go-around. That environment means the coaches only really need to focus on helping the soccer be great, paying attention to technique, tactics, and the x’s and o’s.”
After several years of rebuilding, acknowledges Bernstein, 2022 has turned out to be “one of those years, and one of those teams.”
“It takes time to get to a point where you have a team like this, with the right energy, the ability to be light-hearted and joke around when it’s appropriate, and also the awareness to be able to flip the switch and be focused and disciplined when it’s necessary.”
Bernstein names goalkeeper Kintzele as embodying the leadership and growth that have defined the Mustangs’ season.
In his first year in the starting position, Bernstein recounts, “Kintzele has become a real source of confidence for the team. With the incredible guidance of Assistant Coach Zuriel Lozano, he’s grown leaps and bounds. When you see a goalkeeper behind you who is so confident, it gives every other member of the team confidence.”
Bernstein acknowledges other Seniors who have made important contributions throughout the fall.
Defenders McPeek and Smith, he says, have been quiet leaders on and off the field, mentoring younger players and holding everyone to the standard they set of “showing up and being their best selves in training and in games.” Sohn, too, has brought unsung strength to the program. “This is a guy who has stayed with soccer his entire high school career,” Bernstein explains. “He’s never been a star, but he is one of our hardest workers, one of the most well respected players on the roster. The younger ones look up to him, and he’s embraced that role.”
“With Seniors who are this dialed in,” observes Bernstein, “it elevates the level of the entire team.”
As dialed in as the team, CA’s beautifully maintained Firman Field offered a fitting stage throughout the fall to showcase the strength of the Soccer program under Bernstein, who has served as Head Coach for 11 years.
“I talk about it with the team,” says Bernstein. “We’re out there practicing and playing on Firman while hundreds of Pre-K through Grade 12 families are driving right past us. It’s so visible and front-facing, we always have to ask ourselves how we’re showing up for training, if we’re proud of how we’re playing. It keeps us sharp and keeps us honest.”
And in a way that may be unintended, he explains, Firman actually serves as a platform for growing an already successful program.
“Middle School and even Lower School students get really excited about coming to the games,” Bernstein says. “Interest in the Soccer program starts early, and a lot of credit for that goes to our Middle School Soccer coach, P.E. Program Director Sean Stedeford. He and I are very aligned in how we see player development, so by the time players reach Ninth Grade, they’ve already had three or four years playing for Coach Stedeford, developing solid technical abilities. That foundation sets us up for success.”
Strong coaching on the C- and JV-level teams also helps to ensure a healthy pipeline onto the Varsity squad, Bernstein explains.
“Our Ninth and Tenth Grade players need to see a path where they can end up making an impact at the Varsity level by their Junior or Senior year. It’s important for the stability and longevity of the program.”
Bernstein took player development a step further this year, pulling three members of the JV team up to Varsity for the playoff run. Experiencing the playoff environment allows the younger players to get a feel not only for the games, but also for the intensity of the training.
“As our Senior leaders graduate, we want the next generation to see and understand that leadership role, so they’ll have a sense of how they will need to show up in future years.”
Reflecting on what makes the CA Soccer program unique, Bernstein points to the special relationships that, for him, have characterized the 2022 season.
“Being the parent of a two-year-old, and with another child on the way, I have a whole new perspective on how my time is spent, how I am showing up at home, how I am showing up at my job in the building, and how I’m showing up at training.”
As the Upper School’s academic coach as well as Twelfth Grade Dean, Bernstein not only coaches his athletes, but he also interacts with them in their daily lives as students. Those connections mean that people all across campus get to experience the Soccer program. “People know me and my players, and we try to carry ourselves the right way.”
“This group of players appreciates that,” Bernstein continues. “They appreciate all that I have going on. And as the season has progressed, I’ve leaned on them—as well as Coach Lozano and my Assistant Coach, Ryan O’Donnell—even more. It’s been great to see everyone rise to the challenge, and evolve in the way that they embrace the program.”
For example, says Bernstein, this year’s Seniors are responsible for cleaning up the field and equipment at the end of every training session. It allows him time to run home and be a dad.
“All of these contributions to the team drive excitement and commitment to each other,” Bernstein says. “Everyone wants to show up as their best selves and move the bar even higher. That’s what I’ve been most proud of this year.”