Alex K.W. Schultz
Special to Colorado Community Media
In recent years and matchups, the Mountain Vista boys lacrosse team has been at its best when the moment has been bigger, the stakes higher and the odds unfavorable.
On May 22, on the state's biggest stage — at a packed Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium at the University of Denver, the site of the Class 5A state championship game — Vista reached into its bag one last time for 2023 and pulled out yet another gem.
Despite being kicked into a three-goal hole in the early moments of the second quarter, Mountain Vista's Golden Eagles rallied behind masterful goalie play and a collective grit to beat Valor Christian 10-8 in what was an all-Highlands Ranch title bout.
Never mind that Vista was the 5-seed in the tournament and going up against Colorado's top-ranked squad and the second-best team in America.
Never mind that Vista lost 10-4 to the Valor Eagles less than two months ago in the regular season.
Never mind that the Golden Eagles finished in fourth place out of nine teams in 5A League #3.
Do mind that Vista paid no attention to all the pregame stats and storylines and delivered a big performance in the biggest of moments.
“Two (state championships) in three years. Not too bad,” Vista coach Matthew Plitnick said of his Golden Eagles, who as a 4-seed upset No. 2 Valor in an overtime thriller for the 2021 state title as well. “I think we have something going pretty well here at Mountain Vista.”
When asked if the win means a little more since it came at the expense of Valor, which is located less than three miles up the road from Vista, Plitnick said: “(Beating a school) that has a bunch of kids in district who went there as opposed to here? Yeah, we're the kings of Highlands Ranch.”
After a state tournament that spanned 12 days and began with 24 teams, the Golden Eagles are now the kings of Colorado, too.
But securing the scepter and sash didn't come easy — Vista had to get past fourth-seeded Legend (6-5 Golden Eagles win) and No. 1 seed and seven-time state champion Cherry Creek (12-11 Vista win) to reach the title game.
Through it all, the Golden Eagles found a way to win — and keep winning.
“We put in so much work since the fall,” senior goalie Brant Ward said. “We knew we were the best team in the state, and we proved it tonight.”
Ward's nine-save night was a big reason why the Golden Eagles (16-3) came out on top. After letting four shots sneak past him in the opening quarter, which put Vista at a quick 4-1 disadvantage, Ward was a completely different shot blocker the rest of the way.
Valor (17-2) scored just once in the second quarter and Ward pitched a shutout in the third. Meanwhile, Vista scored seven times over the second and third periods — three goals from Joel Palasz, two from Ethan Pearson, and one each from Dawson Long and Brady Brown — to turn a three-goal deficit into an 8-5 lead.
“He was the player of the game for us,” Plitnick said of Ward, who will take his lacrosse talents to Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. “He was seeing the ball beautifully — the low shots, the high shots, everything. He was the player of the game, no question about it. It was impressive.”
Palasz scored twice more in the fourth quarter to put the finishing touches on a five-goal night.
In the game's final seven minutes, Valor's Blake Ham scored two goals and Baden Brown added another, but the damage done by Vista in the third period was simply too much for the Eagles to overcome.
“We stayed composed. That's what it's all about,” Palaz, who is also set to play lacrosse at Sacred Heart, said of what it took for Vista to come back after Valor had seized all the early momentum. “We knew what we were capable of doing and we did it. We just had to play the ball that we know how to play and that we've been coached to play. We did and it worked out.”
Long scored Vista's lone goal in the first quarter.
For Valor, Ham scored a team-high three goals, Brown had two, and Luke Alread, Christian Eframo and Rush LaSelle each tallied one. Star goalie Buck Cunningham recorded four saves while Kyle Green had one.