The third time has definitely proved to be a charm for the Air Force men’s soccer team.
“There’s been groups of threes,” Air Force coach Doug Hill said. “We beat New Mexico three times, you had to win three games (in the conference tournament).”
And it was the third of each of those that boosted the Falcons into the NCAA soccer tournament for the first time since 1997. Air Force won the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship game Sunday over New Mexico to earn the conference’s automatic qualifying bid.
The team gathered at Champps Bar & Grill on Monday to watch the NCAA selection show, where they learned that they would be playing at Washington (12-4-3) on Thursday. A win there will send the Falcons to a date against Creighton (15-3-2) on Sunday.
With 48 teams making the NCAA tournament and Air Force sporting an 8-8-3 record heading into the conference tournament, there was no chance of earning an at-large bid. The conference championship was the only way to keep the season alive.
“The best thing about this team is that they can beat good teams,” Hill said. “Yes, we lost to some teams we shouldn’t have, but I think we’ve gotten better. We’re a bit more focused.”
Air Force had to show that ability to beat good teams to get this far. After a 4-2 win over UNLV on Thursday, The Falcons went to overtime against Cal State-Bakersfield (9-5-5) on Friday. Brian Klazura’s goal 12:20 into the overtime period gave Air Force a 2-1 victory and a chance to face No. 1 seed New Mexico.
Against the Lobos, Air Force was 16 seconds away from elimination.
“I remember 2 minutes before the game was over thinking this could be the end of our college soccer career,” said Kevin Durr, one of 10 seniors on the team. “Somehow, it didn’t feel like it was.”
With 20 seconds remaining, Durr lined up to take a free kick from 45 yards out. He lobbed it in front of the goal, but it was knocked away. Durr collected the ball just outside of the penalty area, took one touch and blasted it in to tie the match at the 89:44 mark.
After two scoreless overtime periods, the teams went to penalty kicks. Air Force converted each of its first four PKs with New Mexico following suit on its first three. As the fourth Lobo kicker, Michael Calderon, stepped up, Air Force goalie Matt Underwood got psychological.
“All I’ve got to do is to try to make them make a mistake; I try and get into their heads a little bit,” Underwood said. “I always look right at them, try to look them in the eyes. He kept trying to take little glances at where he was going to kick and, as he was running up, I was moving around, trying to give him a little fake one way.
“He went that way and had to hit it high and he missed.”
Underwood jumped to his feet, pointing at his teammates.
“I knew we were going to win at that point,” he said.
Sophomore Scott McGillivray blasted in Air Force’s fifth PK to assure the win. No. 9-ranked New Mexico had only four games this season that didn’t result in a victory, and three of those came at the hands of the Falcons.
“We’re excited. We’ll change our focus from the excitement to getting down to business, breaking down game film, getting a plan,” Hill said.
“The No. 1 thing is we’re still playing. Giving themselves the opportunity to play one more week is everything.”