DENVER — Luis Vega watched his goal for a moment before he started racing back to midfield as his Atlas Prep boys' soccer teammates congratulated the sophomore with hugs, chest bumps and high-fives.
The celebration didn't last long, though.
On Wednesday night, the Gryphons faced their toughest challenge all season and were humbled. No. 2 Kent Denver beat No. 3 Atlas Prep 4-2 in the Class 3A semifinals at All-City Stadium to make another return to the state's biggest stage.
Atlas Prep ended its season with an impressive list of accomplishments. This includes winning a program-best 17 games in only its fourth year, going unbeaten until Wednesday and advancing to the Final Four for the first time.
In two previous seasons, the Gryphons lost in the second round.
The Sun Devils had a big lead early on, thanks first to Pace Billings being in the right place, the right time after Max Hewitt fired a shot in the fifth minute that bounced off the Atlas Prep goalkeeper. Hewitt had his own goal in the 20th minute and made it a 2-0 lead.
But not long after, the Gyphons' Vega scored on an assist by Lamario Nisbeth.
This rally was short-lived as the Sun Devils (19-0) made it 4-1 within the next few minutes — thanks to goals by Billings and Spencer Thomas. That gave Kent Denver a comfortable halftime lead.
"These guys are solid," Atlas Prep coach Teo Jackson said of the Sun Devils. "This is a tough team to beat."
The Gryphons did score again. In the 56th minute, Nisbeth knocked in a penalty kick for his 52nd goal of the season, most in the state.
Atlas Prep had a handful of other scoring opportunities but just couldn't capitalize.
The Sun Devils return to Saturday's final to play No. 5 Roaring Fork, which upset top-seeded Salida in the other semifinals matchup. Last year, Kent Denver beat Liberty Common 2-1 to capture its fourth state title in five tries.
Prior to Wednesday, Atlas Prep's only blemish was a scoreless, double-overtime tie against Salida. It had outscored opponents 133-9 heading into the state semifinals, with Nisbeth tallying many of those goals.
Nisbeth, however, didn't get many touches — thanks to Kent Denver defenders following him closely. The senior admitted that he hadn't seen a defense like that before.
"Their movement off the ball is very good," he said. "They're faster, they're more physical than any other team that we played."