By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – The magic has ended. The memories – of the season, and of the shoes -- will not.
“I’d rather use tonight to celebrate,” third-year coach Jamie Clark said Saturday night after his second-seeded, Pac-12-champion Huskies had their season end in a 1-0 loss to seventh-seeded New Mexico in Washington’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament’s round of eight. “I want to celebrate the guys, for all they’ve done. Celebrate this season.
“I’m proud of our guys.”
The pressing, determined, second-seeded Huskies came alive in the second half, creating chance after chance. But a cold-starting first half ended up decisive, and Washington’s quest for a first NCAA championship ended in the national quarterfinals on a 25-degree night and frozen field in front of 2,247 at Husky Soccer Stadium.
It was the second time in 22 matches this season the Huskies (16-2-4) failed to score. The other time was a scoreless draw at Connecticut in September.
“It’s been an incredible season,” said Cristian Roldan, a revelation as the Huskies’ Pac-12 freshman of the year, said as he stood alone on the frozen field moments after the final whistle. “Right now, maybe we should be thinking the season was a failure because we didn’t win the national title. But we made it to the national quarterfinals, farther than anyone thought we would.”
Clark lamented his guys wearing spikes in the game-deciding first half. UW slid all over the asphalt-like pitch in those. New Mexico, coached by Clark’s old mentor Jeremy Fishbein, wore sneakers – and dominated the half, out-shooting the Huskies 10-1 and scoring the game’s only goal.
“That first half was a bit of a shock,” Roldan said.
The teen from Pica Rivera, Calif., said the coldest he’d played in before this was maybe 50 degrees.
New Mexico (14-5-2) goal was a one-time shot by Ben McKendry in the 37th minute off a cross from deep in the right corner by Oniel Fisher. UW goalkeeper Ryan Herman had no chance at such a quick shot from such a close range.
That score held up for the final 53 minutes, sending the Lobos to next weekend’s Final Four of national semifinals in Philadelphia. The Lobos will play on Friday against Notre Dame (14-1-6), the tournament’s third seed coached by Bobby Clark – the father of Washington’s coach.
During that first half, Jamie Clark – a former UNM assistant under Fishbein – noticed how the Lobos weren’t falling. So in a rush he summoned a team trainer to a sporting-goods store up the street from the field, and the manager dutifully bought all the sneakers he could get and carry. By the second half most of the Huskies were in those. And that’s when Washington got seven shots on goal, most of those prime chances, all turned away by New Mexico goalkeeper Michael Lisch.
Michael Harris was one of the only Huskies starting in tennis shoes; he wore ones he’d brought from home. He sent about a dozen of his signature somersault flip throws in on New Mexico’s defense, but his overall play was just as remarkable. The gritty senior defender, the only one in the stadium and maybe the state Saturday in short sleeves, hustled all over the field in his final college game.
With 2 minutes remaining he dived and skidded across the ice beyond the sideline boundary and into New Mexico's bench to draw a foul. But goalkeeper Ryan Herman’s free kick was knocked down by the Lobos in the penalty area.
It was the final of many great chances in the second half for the Huskies, whose outstanding season that included their first Pac-12 championship since 2000 ended with a record of 16-2-4.
“We had belief we were going to get a goal and that we were coming back, because we’d done it all season,” said senior defender Taylor Peay, who was exhorting his teammates all game long.
Freshman forward Mason Robertson, second on the team with six goals this season, never did get flat shoes. He managed just one shot in 71 minutes played, basically a non-factor.
“Coach’s mistake,” Clark said of the Huskies’ spikes instead of sneakers. “We had never played in this before. We didn’t know what to expect. ... I mean, I’ve never seen freezing like this in this city.
“Give those guys credit. They had the right kind of footwear. ... good for them.
“Lesson learned. We couldn’t get close to them because we couldn’t move.”
After Washington changed into the new shoes on the ice it took the play to the Lobos. As numerous chances either went wide or were deflected away, Peay kept yelling from the middle of the field to his Huskies mates, “Keep it up boys! It’s coming!”
Indeed, they kept coming.
Clark even moved Roldan from midfielder to attacker for one of the few times this season in the desperate push for the tying goal. Then James Moberg sent a free kick in front of the goal to Roldan with 36 minutes left, but Roldan couldn’t turn his shoulders turned against tight defense to get a shot accurate on goal.
Peay then had a header from point-blank range in front of the net saved by Lisch with 18 minutes left. With 15 minutes to go, Harris took a corner kick from Moberg just to the right of the middle of the goal, but Harris sent his challenged header over the crossbar.
“Keep it going boys!” Peay kept yelling.
They did. But they never could score.
Unlike Washington’s inartistic slog of a 1-0 win last weekend over Stanford that got the Huskies into the first NCAA round of eight appearance in the program’s 50-year history, this game had spice from the start. An angered Harris got a yellow card in his own deep corner late in the opening half. Then came a brief jawing session between Clark and Fishbein. A linesman eventually had to separate protégé and the man who gave Clark his first coaching job in 2002 at midfield.
As advertised, New Mexico came out attacking early and controlled much of the first half’s possession.
Herman, the Seattle-area native and sophomore transfer from Santa Clara who won 15 of his 16 starts after senior star Spencer Richey broke his leg at Connecticut in September, made three saves in the opening half. On one in the opening minutes he jumped and used his 6-foot-7 frame to keep a long Lobos loft from scoring.
Despite the pain and cold of Saturday night, the Huskies will remember this season for all the history they made more than how it ended on ice.
Clark is 41-11-9 since arriving for the 2011 season. That’s 41 wins in less than three full seasons. It took the Huskies the previous five seasons immediately before Clark got here to win 41 games.
“The seniors – Michael, Taylor ... they always say leave your jersey in a better place than you found it when you graduate. And those seniors did that,” said Clark said. “The Washington jersey is back, and among the best in the nation.”
Peay ends his college career appreciate that to be true.
“I can honestly say we were not good when I first got here,” he said. “But now look at our team.
“I’ve grown so much as a person and as a soccer player. And I’m grateful for it.”