The No. 11-ranked Fort Hays State men’s soccer team was hit with more adversity in a span of about five minutes than the Tigers had faced all season long.
First, a Tiger defensive miscue helped Northeastern State take a 1-0 lead with 34:14 left in Thursday night’s NCAA Division II Central Region final at FHSU Soccer Stadium.
Then, the Tigers lost MIAA player of the year Santiago Agudelo for the final 30 minutes after the star forward left with a foot injury.
But that misfortune didn't stop the Tigers from taking a special season one step further.
Thanks in part to a pair of freshmen, FHSU pulled off a dramatic rally, scoring three goals in the last 9:05 of the game to claim the regional title with a 3-1 win over the RiverHawks.
Freshman Alonso Rodriguez found the equalizer at the 80:55 mark and then put FHSU in front just a minute and 27 seconds later. MIAA freshman of the year Rogelio Lopez sealed it with a goal at the 86:43 mark.
The Tigers, who improved to 16-2-1 and stretched its winning streak to 13, will meet Ohio Valley in the national quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Saturday in Hays.
“We had to play without Santiago earlier in the year, so it wasn’t totally a new thing,” FHSU coach Brett Parker said. “In this winning streak we’ve won pretty, we’ve won ugly. But (adversity) like that? No.
“But we’re prepared for it. We expect to go into these games and control the game and score and lead the match, but that’s not how soccer works. The game is unpredictable and it certainly was tonight. We had a game plan going down the stretch of the game if we’re trailing, what we need to do tactically. The guys kept their belief and got it done.”
After a scoreless first half, Northeastern State’s Flynn Semmerling took advantage of a Tiger mistake, intercepting a pass and scoring at the 55:46 mark.
“We had to keep our cool, but I never had any doubt that we were going to score,” Lopez said. “We have everything to be able to beat them, no matter what.”
Agudelo, who has 26 goals on the season, left after suffering a foot injury while chasing down a ball near the goal. He appeared to be in severe pain and was unable to place much weight on his left foot as he was helped off the field.
But Fort Hays State continued to create quality looks in Agudelo’s absence, finally breaking through on Rodriguez’s fifth goal of the season.
“We talked all along that if (NSU was) going to score, it was going to be at our undoing, and it was,” Parker said. “We responded really, really well, even when our goal scorer goes out.
“We played some guys in some spots that they never played before, and they came out and got the job done.”
Moments after Northeastern State narrowly missed an opportunity at a wide-open net that would have made it a two-goal game, FHSU defender Moritz Walther helped set up the game-tying goal, chasing down a loose ball near the corner and sliding over a pass in front of the net to Rodriguez.
“Mo is so strong, so I believed that he could reach the ball,” Rodriguez said. “I stayed so close to the target, just in case.
“When I scored that goal, I got crazy. I couldn’t believe it. Because it was tough; the game was almost done. We’re a strong family. I’m so proud of the team.”
Rodriguez followed the tying tally with an even more impressive goal. After the ball was popped up just outside the box, Rodriguez took a shot with his left foot, beating NSU goalkeeper Thomas Salenbien with a shot to the right side.
“I couldn’t believe the first goal. I couldn’t believe even more the second goal,” Rodriguez said. “It was crazy again, because I’m not left-footed. It was a difficult ball to kick.
“I just tried to put all my soul in that ball. Get it with all my heart. I was lucky.”
Lopez put a cap on the Tigers' fourth region championship in program history by placing one over the head over Salenbien with 3:17 left.
Parker credited Rodriguez and Lopez for stepping up in big spots.
“They’re not freshmen at this stage,” Parker said. “They play the same position most of the time, and it’s been a really nice problem to have to decide who’s going to start and who’s going to come off the bench and who’s going to get what minutes.
“They’re really mature players for their age, and they stepped up. We have a lot of upperclassmen, a lot of seniors that carry the team, but when it mattered most, these guys stepped up and got the job done.”
NSU, which beat Fort Hays in the regional final last year, ended the season 15-3-1, losing all three matches to the Tigers.
In the first game Thursday, Ohio Valley advanced to the quarterfinals with a 1-0 victory over Saginaw Valley State in the Midwest Region final. The winner of Saturday’s match will advance to the NCAA Division II final four in Pittsburgh.
"When you get to this stage, it's just the next reward," Parker said. "We talked (before the game), no matter what happens we've had a great season. Everything you do beyond that is to keep establishing your legacy."