CORTEZ – The top two teams in the 3A Southwest League faced off Saturday afternoon, vying for the pole position in the standings heading in to the second half of the 2021 spring campaign.
A flurry of action late in the second half saw the Panthers level the score, then concede the game-winner in a hard-fought 2-1 loss to the Mean Moose.
Montezuma-Cortez (3-2, 2-2 3A Southwest League) entered its meeting with Alamosa knowing that they would likely need to sweep their two meetings with the Mean Moose to capture an outright league title.
Alamosa (5-0, 4-0 3A Southwest League), meanwhile, presented the toughest test for the Panthers so far this season, entering the contest having outscored their first four opponents by a combined 18-0.
The Panthers knew they would face a prolific offensive threat from Alamosa’s three forwards, including the league’s leading scorer, junior Isai Lemus, at the top of the formation. Alamosa hemmed the Panthers in early, but Panthers senior Hayden Tallmadge governed a sturdy back line that limited the Mean Moose to no clear sight of goal in the opening minutes.
Mean Moose sophomore Isaac Higareda had the game’s first real chance, as he lashed a shot from 20 yards out that narrowly missed the goal.
As the game progressed, M-CHS built confidence on the ball and started to present chances of its own. Culminating from a spell of offensive pressure, Panthers senior Cavin Martinez fired a shot from outside the penalty box that had Mean Moose goalkeeper Cody Gonzalez beat, but the visitors breathed a sigh of relief as the shot screamed past the right post.
Moments later, the game changed. Working out of their own defensive third, the Mean Moose launched a ball forward. Lemus collected the deflection off a Panthers defender and raced in on goal, calmly slotting the ball into the net for a 1-0 lead in the 27th minute.
Chasing the game, the Panthers started to pressure the Alamosa goal with frequency. M-CHS senior Bruce Cudkowicz took a chance from long range that went over the bar in the 31st minute, before Martinez nearly had sophomore Evan Lamunyon in on a through ball two minutes later, only to see Gonzalez there first for the Mean Moose.
With more players committed forward for the Panthers, Alamosa nearly found opportunities to double their lead on the counterattack. Lemus nearly had his second of the game, but junior defender Morgan Larrick intervened to usher the Mean Moose attacker to a tough angle for an off-target shot.
Out of halftime, the Panthers could count themselves fortunate to still be down just one, as the Mean Moose fired a pair of dangerous attempts at goal, including a 45th-minute effort that clattered off of Panthers goalkeeper Trinidad McDonell’s crossbar.
Recognizing the momentum was still squarely on the visiting side, head coach Kevin McGarigal’s squad produced some of their best soccer of the season over the next 20 minutes.
In the 49th minute, Martinez linked up with sophomore Sawyer Smith on a gorgeous through ball, to which Smith beat his defender, only to pull a missile just wide of the post.
Three minutes later, Martinez called his own number, taking a ball at the top of the box and lashing a shot that Gonzalez could only palm away.
It was only a matter of time, then, for the Panthers offense to finally get a justified reward for their efforts. Taking a pass from Martinez after a Panthers throw in, Smith took a deft touch to establish space, then fired another rocket from 18 yards out that rippled the net and sent the Panthers into celebration.
And then, jubilation turned to deflation. Twenty seconds after the whistle to restart play after Smith’s first career goal in the 67th minute had knotted the game at 1-1, Alamosa was back in front. Alamosa striker Alex Antonio-Esteban burst down the right wing, took a pass, and sent a ferocious shot across the face of goal that eluded McDonell to put the Moose back in front.
A pair of late chances for Cudkowicz and Lamunyon couldn’t beat Gonzalez, and Alamosa celebrated the final whistle as they kept their perfect season intact.
The Panthers kept their scoring streak alive, as they have tallied at least once in each of their five matches this season. Even in the loss, the Panthers still sit poised to capture their first winning season in over a decade, although their pursuit will include a rematch with Alamosa on April 17.
On Friday, April 9, M-CHS will look to get back to winning ways when they face Bayfield, a squad they defeated 5-2 earlier this season.