After a 14 hour drive, the Gophers arrived in Fort Collins, Colorado, home of Colorado State University. On the weekend of October 23-24, the 2021 NIRSA region V tournament would give Minnesota a chance to claim one of 3 national tournament bids up for grabs. Drawn into group A, they would face up against the number 4 team out of Colorado, University of Denver, the number 1 team out of the Great Plains Conference, North Dakota State University (NDSU), and the number 1 team out of Colorado, Colorado State University (CSU). The requirements: finish top of the group, and you’re through to nationals and a chance to claim the regional title. 2nd in the group would see a face off between the other 2nd place team for the final automatic berth to nationals. Let’s see what went down...
Group A game 1: UMN vs. Denver
Minnesota opened up play Saturday morning against UD. Denver had many close results against the other Colorado teams, some wins and some losses, so the Gophers were expecting a good team. Denver had some good fortune early, as a ball popped up in the box off a Denver mis-touch inadvertently struck a Gopher hand and the ref whistled for a penalty. The penalty was subsequently converted as Denver celebrated a surprise lead. It didn’t last long however, before the Gophers struck back. Logan Rohloff floated a ball from outside the box that sailed over the keeper’s head and into the far corner to level the score. The leveling goal only spurred the Gophers on, as a Sam Yarmulnik first half hattrick put the Gophers comfortably in the driver’s seat going into half time. Minnesota killed the game off in the second half, putting one more insurance goal off the head of Bridger Good to go up 5-1, and a late Denver goal did little to erase a deficit that was simply too big to overcome. With the 5-2 victory, the Gophers moved to first in group A with 3 points and a +3 goal differential.
Group A game 2: UMN vs. NDSU
Later that day, Minnesota played an NDSU side looking to bounce back after a 3-0 loss to Colorado State. Minnesota started strong, but were unable to convert a few early chances owing to some nice saves by the NDSU keeper. The deadlock was broken by Bridger Good, his header finding the back of the net from a corner. An onslaught was started as Carter Belisle was quickest to poke home a loose ball in the box from a corner to go up 2-0, Adam Gralinski was found by a gorgeous Seiya Wakahara cross to take the lead to 3, Good secured his brace with a mazy dribble and slotted finish, and Owen Salzwedel capped off the half with a 1 on 1 finish to take the Gophers into the break with a 5-0 advantage. The game was seen off in routine fashion as Minnesota added 4 more goals with a brace from Robel Asmelash, an Elliot James strike, and an own goal making an emphatic 9-0 win for the Gophers.
Group A game 3: UMN vs. Colorado State
On Sunday, the Gophers would face their toughest opponent in the most important game of the season yet. Colorado State, sitting on 4 points after a 2-2 draw with Denver, had to win to secure a place in the national tournament, while a win or draw for the Gophers would do the same. The first half was a taut affair, with both teams playing hard but not able to find any overt weaknesses to exploit. Colorado State struck first with 10 minutes left in the half, as a deep free kick was launched into the box and a loose ball was poked home by an alert CSU striker. The Gophers went into halftime knowing that as it stood, they were sitting in second place and would have to face a playoff match to guarantee a spot in the national tournament. But just like before, the Gophers rallied and came out renewed in the second half.
Early in the half, Jasper Goldstein won a ball off the center back and chased down the loose ball, beating the goalkeeper to it and providing an easy finish for Yarmulnik. The Minnesota spirits were energized, and a familiar Gopher blitz ensued. The following 10 minutes saw Minnesota bombard CSU, as Good found a defense-piercing slotted ball down the wing for Goldstein to cut back in the box, and Yarmulnik provided another clinical finish. Good subsequently flicked a header past the keeper to turn the game around in a snap, and continue his stellar play in the tournament. A late CSU own goal from a Spencer Overturf cross put the icing on the cake, as the Gophers ran out 4-1 winners and topped group A for a place in the National Tournament.
Regional Championship Match: UMN vs. CU Boulder
Minnesota had one last game to play, facing off against CU Boulder (winners of group B) for a chance to bring home the regional championship. The game got off to a flyer for the Gophers, as a mazy dribble and composed finish from the feet of Gralinski put Minnesota a goal to the good within 2 minutes of play. The Gophers got a touch complacent, and CU Boulder capitalized midway through the half with a good bit of skill in the corner and cross that picked out a late Boulder run into the box to level the contest. Minnesota came out re-energized in the second half and struck quickly once again, as a scintillating combination of play put the Gophers back on top. A long ball was floated up towards Yarmulnik, who chested it down for Goldstein’s run underneath. As he picked up the ball Goldstein’s pass found Belisle cutting in from the wing, whose perfect touch set up a simple finish. The Buffaloes pushed for an equalizer, but the Minnesota defense, as exhausted as they were, held firm and claimed a 2-1 win for the Gophers and secured the regional championship trophy.
The regional triumph represents the first regional championship win for Minnesota since 2009, as the squad wins their first silverware of the year and turns their eyes towards the national championship in Foley, Alabama in 3 weeks time. See you soon Gopher fans…
Ski U Mah and Go Gophers!