A loss in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference final didn’t impact UCCS much when the NCAA released regional brackets for the Division II women’s soccer tournament Monday, but an injury to a key player Saturday vs. Colorado School of Mines may complicate the road ahead.

UCCS junior and all-RMAC first-team selection Caitlin Esterle, a Springs native and Pine Creek graduate, was carted off the field late in the first half of the final. Her season is over, according to UCCS coach Sian Hudson, after a serious knee injury. It’s a big setback for the Mountain Lions, which were awarded the No. 1 seed in the South Central Region after suffering their first loss of the season.

“From my standpoint, nobody is going to replace Cait Esterle and what she does for the team,” Hudson said. “She’s an outstanding player. She wins a lot of balls out of the air. She’s a big, physical presence for us in the back line, and I think everybody is going to have to step up a little bit more just to sort of share that responsibility. I’m really confident in the team, and they can accomplish that, but yeah, it’s a devastating loss for us.”

It was a bit of a drag on an otherwise exciting day for UCCS. The 19-1 Mountain Lions will host the winner of Friday’s match between No. 5 Texas Woman’s University and No. 4 Dixie State, a member of the RMAC, at 1 p.m. Sunday. UCCS beat the Trailblazers 2-1 on Oct. 6 behind two goals from junior Shanade Hopcroft, but the RMAC Player of the Year seems not to have a preference which team is on the visiting bench Sunday.

“Our coaches are really good on film, and they give us details,” Hopcroft said. “So we’ll be ready no matter what.”

The team gathered at Clyde’s, a pub on campus, to watch the selection show. Hopcroft and Hudson were unaware the NCAA had released the top seeds, confirming the Mountain Lions’ first-round bye, but freshman Tanner Sanders was on it.

“I just felt super happy,” Sanders, the league’s Freshman of the Year said. “I already knew we were first, but it’s still really nice to hear our names be called and say that we’re first seed and get to host.”

After a day off Sunday, the team returned to practice Monday before learning of their fate. The UCCS coach said her team seemed eager to put Saturday’s result behind them and look ahead.

“I just can’t wait to get back out there and show them, you know, we’ve got a lot more to give,” Hopcroft said. “We’ve still got a little bit of a way to go, but we can’t wait.”

The hope is that elevation, some Colorado winter weather and a crowd like Saturday’s will amplify the home-field advantage, as the Mountain Lions navigate the postseason without a key player.

“She’s a huge part of our team, and it’s devastating for us, but we’ve got a lot of great players and a lot of depth on the team. We’ll recover,” Hudson said. “Hopefully, we get the soccer community back out and have a different result this weekend.”

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