It was a different kind of team that showed up when Colorado Academy took to Weidner Field in Colorado Springs on November 11, 2023, to contend for the CHSAA Class 3A Boys Soccer State Championship—different from the squad, led by a corps of All-State Senior leaders, that claimed the trophy on the same stage a year ago. These Mustangs were younger overall, scrappier, less the well-oiled machine of fall 2022 than a band of fighters, many of them Juniors, looking to prove their resilience in combat.
And that is what they did. Though it was a different team, the result was much the same as last year’s: The Mustangs brought all of their skill, bravery, and hunger for victory to the pitch as they claimed a second Championship trophy in a row with a 3–1 defeat of the Coal Ridge Titans. The win made it seven state titles in all for CA, and the third in four years.
“We’ve been waiting since August to defend our title,” said Senior midfielder Simeon Woldeyohannes after the game, in which he followed fellow midfielder Junior Caleb Mengistu’s leadoff goal at seven minutes into the match by making CA’s second score midway through the second half. Another goal notched by Junior forward Christoff Zimmerman a few minutes later would wrap the victory up tight for the Mustangs.
“Our entire focus all season long was creating the right training environment that valued excellent habits and discipline,” explains Head Coach Gabe Bernstein. “We put so much work into the season early on, with our emphasis on our fitness, technical skills, and mentality, that by the time the playoffs came around, all we had left to do was fine-tuning and some tactical preparation.”
“Lifting a trophy on the last day of the season is really just the cherry on top for us,” Bernstein goes on, “affirming that what we’re doing in training each day is where the real work is put in.”
Adds Director of Athletics Jon Hill, “There’s no question—it was a fun day to be out there, and a truly exciting way to end the season! The boys had an unforgettable run this year led by Gabe and his amazing coaching staff. This team came together each day with focus and determination to get better, and their hard work paid off. They grew as individual players and as a team throughout the season. We are so proud of them!”
A team effort
Though Coal Ridge came into this final pairing seeded only 15th, their play against CA, not to mention their Cinderella run up to the title matchup, proved they had everything they needed to contend against the No. 1-ranked Mustangs. They had already claimed narrow, come-from-behind victories over several higher-ranked teams. The question coming into the final was, could they do it again?
It looked like a real possibility for the entire first half and much of the second, as their fast and aggressive play on offense and more than capable defense meant CA was held to just a single goal, equal to the Titans’ first-half total against Junior goalkeeper Clyde Love. But Love was able to rack up four key saves through the rest of the game to hold Coal Ridge to their single point, and Woldeyohannes’s and Zimmerman’s deft striking in the second half would seal the deal for the Mustangs.
According to Bernstein, “Coal Ridge is not another run-of-the-mill high school team; they remind me of a high-level club team. They brought a lot of weapons to the field and played a game similar to ours: technical, always looking for possession, aggressive. The Titans certainly asked some hard questions of us, and we had to adapt and respond to a team that continued to fight for an equalizing goal. Ultimately, I think their score in the second half kicked us into gear a bit and we started playing more on the front foot.”
Bernstein attributes a good measure of the team’s success to Love, who in his first year on the Varsity squad has made an immediate impact. With previous experience as a field player, says Bernstein, Love “plays a little further out in front, and he’s really embraced the role. He’s been a great presence for us.”
A midfield loaded with talent has been the other key to the Mustangs’ success, proving critical in Saturday’s game.
“Simeon is such a special player,” Bernstein says of the team’s leading goal-scorer, with 21 in regular and post-season competition. “He has that ability to take over a game with a moment of magic on attack.” At the same time, the prowess of Woldeyohannes has drawn increasing attention from opponents, meaning the Senior midfielder has had to find different ways to lead.
“He makes a lot more runs to draw defenders with him or be a decoy,” explains Bernstein. “He’ll create a pocket for other players with an attacking run in behind. Simeon’s had to figure out ways to play more unselfishly, which is challenging for someone who’s so gifted.”
But it is that creativity and versatility that have allowed other athletes to shine. Mengistu, Bernstein says, has blossomed this year, playing with great confidence and discipline. The two center backs, Sophomore Braden Schubert and Junior Clark Seaton, have also come into their own, developing “a solid partnership where their technical understanding has allowed players like Simeon and Caleb to play a more attacking game.”
“We’re at a point now,” Bernstein continues, “where the younger guys in the program have been around it enough that they see what it takes and they know what is being asked of them. We’ve done a lot of teaching this year. On Saturday, we saw how that pays off.”
Though it looked very different from last year’s Senior-led squad, Bernstein says, the lineup this year learned a tremendous amount throughout the season, and players have found their own special kind of success.
“These guys lead by showing up for every game and working hard in every game,” says Bernstein. Players like Senior forwards Nic Jeffries and Tate Behrhorst, he continues, “have embraced the role of being disciplined, creating opportunities for others, and earning the team’s respect in practice and in competition.”
The Mustangs’ season-capping victory in the Championship match validates the “rebrand” that Bernstein says the team’s undertaken throughout the season. It may have looked “messy” in the early days, he explains, especially with younger replacements in multiple key roles, but it worked. “We simplified the game, settled on a system with four backs, three midfielders, and three forwards, and it suited us. Everyone knows where they belong, who’s capable of certain things, and how they’re all going to contribute.”
Refusing to compare one year’s team to another has been a virtue, Bernstein says. “We’re always trying to help our players develop along their own trajectory. There are plenty of teams where, when they don’t see that crop of Seniors setting them up for a title, they don’t expect to be competitive. But we ask a lot of our players. We really want them to recognize that they’re going to be the next player responsible for carrying the weight of a position and helping our program be successful, whether it’s this year or next.”
Those high expectations mean that every Mustang lineup has the potential for greatness.
“Everyone plays a role,” Bernstein says. “That’s how we won against Coal Ridge, and that’s how we’re going to win again. Recognize your role, embrace it, and do it to the best of your ability. That’s what a team is all about.”