Tuesday’s state championship game between Manitou Springs and Jefferson Academy has been more than a decade in the making for Cassidy Kuzbek, Payten Smith and almost every other player on the Mustangs’ roster.
The majority of Manitou Springs’ girls soccer team has played together since they were in elementary school. With several starting at only 5 years old, the team has competed at every level and now take the pitch for the high-school squad.
The near-lifelong camaraderie has allowed Manitou Springs to post its best season ever. The No. 3 Mustangs are 19-0 and will play in their first state championship game.
“We have chemistry that you really can’t buy,” said Smith, a senior captain. “I think the fact that we’ve all played together since we were so little is the reason this team is so special.”
The Mustangs have been successful in past years. They reached the 3A quarterfinals a year ago and round two the season before that.
But coach Benjamin Mack believes increased maturity has allowed them to reach the next level.
“This has just been so magical and we’re not really any different than we were last year,” Mack said. “That mental toughness piece really has shown itself this year.”
That increased maturity has allowed them to flourish on both sides of the ball: Manitou Springs has outscored its opponents 124-4.
Mack and his players knew the offense would be strong before the season. The coach noted several key attackers who would give opposing defenders and keepers fits.
But the defense has been unexpectedly strong. The Mustangs haven’t allowed multiple goals in a game.
“You have to solidify the back line, your defense has to be the rock to everything you do,” Mack said. “Early on, I thought the defense would need to grow into it quite a bit, and they have.”
With a state final berth, the Mustangs have already secured their best season ever — but they don’t want to be done yet.
Manitou Springs will battle No. 1 Jefferson Academy for the Class 3A crown. The Jaguars have been similarly dominant, posting a 17-2 record and outscoring opponents 116-12.
Mustang players and coaches know there aren’t many — or any weaknesses — to Jefferson Academy’s game.
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“What jumps out the most is their size,” Mack said. “There are some very large, athletic, strong players — that’s the first thing that jumps out at you. The second thing is their quality of play and their technical ability. They really are the full package.”
Smith added, “They pass the ball extremely well when they don’t take a lot of touches. I think that’ll be a challenge for us.”
The Mustangs and Jaguars will battle at Dicks Sporting Goods Park, home of the MLS’ Colorado Rapids.
On the big stage, Kuzbek believes the team’s bond will help them alleviate any nerves.
“We’re just going to go in with full confidence, give it everything we’ve got and hope it works out,” said Kuzbek, a senior midfielder. “Be excited and just ease into the moment instead of getting nervous about it.”
Regardless of Tuesday’s outcome, this Manitou Springs squad has already made history.
“We’ve worked hard a lot of the years, so this is really rewarding to finally make it to state and see our work pay off and show us what we are able to do,” Kuzbek said.
Said Smith: “I’m hoping that we’re going to go in with the attitude of having fun and playing our hearts out. It’s our last game for most of us, so we’ve talked about going out, having fun and doing our best.”