NIRSA Regional Championships 2022: Gophers on the Way to Nationals After Clean Sweep
*photo credit Sam Rode
On the back of their convincing showing in the Iowa State regional qualifier tournament, Minnesota came in to the regional championships as the number one seed out of the Midwest region and with a point to prove. Taking the long trip to Greeley, Colorado, the Gophers were drawn into group A against Air Force as the number 3 seed out of Colorado, the hosts University of Northern Colorado, and Grand Canyon University as the number 2 seed out of Arizona. Kicking off on a chilly Oct. 28th evening, Minnesota started their journey to claim a national tournament qualification berth.
The tournament format changed slightly for this year: There were 3 groups of 4 teams. 1st and 2nd place in each group would advance to a national qualifier one-off game. Being in group A, 1st place would see a matchup against 2nd place of group C, while 2nd place would see a matchup against 1st place of group B.
Minnesota vs. Air Force (group A game 1)
The Gophers came into their match with Air Force expecting a tough battle. Air Force had some impressive results against the other Colorado sides, and were perhaps unfortunate to find themselves as the 3rd seed from their region. However, the Gophers didn't let the Falcons breath for a second from the start, with Yarmulnik winning a freekick right outside the box within the first 2 minutes of play. Yarmulnik struck the ensuing shot dangerously, the Falcon's keeper only able to parry it out weakly as Sam Hoyt bundled in the rebound to give Minnesota an early lead. Minnesota didn't let up there, continuing to press the Air Force backline. The Gopher onslaught paid dividends again shortly after, as a layoff pass from Hoyt found a well-placed Caballero on top of the box, as he buried an unstoppable finish into the top corner to put Minnesota 2 goals to the good within the opening 10 minutes. The Gophers sitting comfortably, they controlled the ball with patience and saw out the half with their lead.
Minnesota opened the second half knowing the next goal from either side was crucial, either letting the Falcons back into the game or icing the game for Minnesota entirely. Air Force came out with renewed energy, but Minnesota absorbed the pressure and stifled Air Force's scoring chances. As the half settled, the Gophers pressed higher and re-imposed themselves on the game. 10 minutes into the half, a ball won high in the opposition half turned into a chance as Goldstein picked up the ball on the edge of the box and drove around the edge of the backline. Finding just enough space from his move, Goldstein slid the ball across the goal for a wide open Yarmulnik on the back post to tap home and deliver the dagger. The game would finish out at 3-0, an impressive start to the group for the Gophers.
Minnesota vs. Northern Colorado (group A game 2)
Riding the momentum from their game 1 victory, Minnesota came out strong again in game 2 against a Northern Colorado side who had lost their opening match to Grand Canyon. The Gophers scored in the first minute direct from an Ortwein corner kick and didn't let off the pressure the entire half, pouring in 11 goals total. The game already in hand, Minnesota eased off in the second half, controlling the possession while adding a further six goals to run out 17-0 winners for their biggest win of the season.
Minnesota vs. Grand Canyon University (group A game 3)
Minnesota came into game 3 sitting in first place on 6 points, while Grand Canyon University was in third following a 3-1 defeat to Air Force. As it stood, Minnesota just needed a draw or victory to guarantee first place in the group, while GCU were fighting for their tournament lives. The match started with great intensity from both sides, the Lopes showing they weren't going down without a fight. However it was the Gophers who would strike first inside 9 minutes: a dangerous corner was whipped in from Wakahara and wasn't handled properly, allowing Yarmulnik to prod a ball back across the goal and trickle in to the corner. GCU steadied themselves and maintained possession, though the Gophers continued to have the better scoring chances of the half. Just 2 minutes before halftime, a deep free kick was served into the Minnesota box, and fell all the way to the back post for a lurking Lopes player to finish and drag GCU level at half.
The Gophers used the halftime break to stabilize and came back out with more composure in the following half. Early into the half the Gophers were awarded a penalty following a late challenge on O'Rourke in the box, and Yarmulnik converted with no hesitancy. Yarmulnik was the main creator again shortly after, as a driving run through the Lopes backline left the defenders snatching at his heels, and a sharp turn left the final defender with nothing to tackle but Yarmulnik's boots as he won the second penalty of the night for Minnesota. Just as the first one, Yarmulnik buried his strike for a hat trick and to leave a comfortable 3-1 scoreline in favor of the Gophers. The final whistle would blow shortly after to confirm the Gophers finished group play on top.
Minnesota vs. Arizona State (Nationals qualification game)
Minnesota topping their group meant they were set to be faced up against the runner up of group C, which was Arizona State University. The Sun Devils had an impressive start to their tournament campaign, beating Minnesota State soundly 4-0, and defeating St. Thomas 3-1. However, they stumbled in their final group game against Colorado State 2-0, meaning they fell to second place in their group behind the Rams. The Gophers knew they were facing a dangerous team and would have a battle on their hands to qualify for the national tournament.
The game began in a cagey manner, both teams perhaps wary of exposing themselves in a crucial game. Minnesota worked their way into the game and looked more threatening as the half went on, but the Sun Devil's defense was equal to every test the Gophers threw at them. Both sides went into half with all to play for still, with one half for someone to be the difference-maker and send their side to the National Championship Tournament.
The second half rolled around and the match opened up slightly as both sides pushed forward in search of a winner. The centerback pairing of Ferrer-Lugo and O'Rourke were as dominant as ever, stifling any Arizona State offensive threat time and again. Minnesota were controlling the pace of play but weren't having luck finding that final breakthrough until the final 10 minutes of the game. A ball played into midfield from the wing found Ziegert with acres of space, and he found a piercing through ball as a clever run from Brzakala left the Sun Devil's defender chasing shadows. One on one with the keeper, Brzakala kept his composure and slotted his finish into the corner to put the Gophers up 1-0 in the final stretch of the match. Arizona State wasn't able to muster a response as the seconds ticked down to confirm the Gopher's place in the national championship tournament.
A successful regional tournament tallying 4 wins from 4 games sees the Gophers finish out the regular season ranked top of NIRSA Region V for the second year running (With no official regional championship game this year can we claim back to back regional championships from this? We're going to say yes).
Also as a result of Gold's qualification to the championship bracket of the national tournament, Maroon has been drawn into the open bracket for the third tournament running, meaning both sides will feature at this years national tournament in Austin. Maroon finished 2nd in their group in last years tournament and just missed out on advancing to the knockout rounds, while Gold advanced through their group and the round of 16 before bowing out in the national quarterfinals. Both sides will surely want to improve on those results this year, as they aim to put on some of the best performances in club history by topping last years results. The tournament kicks off on November 17th, so be sure to stay tuned to our socials and the website for all updates!
Ski U Mah!