Vail Mountain School boys soccer: Refined and ready for another state tournament run
The Gore Rangers look different than their 2022 2A state-title-winning selves. But one thing is the same: they've used a tough regular-season schedule to come together — and learn how to win.
At the beginning of the month, the Vail Mountain School boys soccer team didn’t exactly look like the defending 2A state champions — at least on paper.
A 2-1 loss to Lotus School For Excellence at home on Sept. 1 — a rematch of the 2022 state title game — dropped the Gore Rangers to 1-2. The cherry on top of physical injuries and bruised egos was a two-game suspension handed to head coach Kevin Ives, who received a post-game red card. Things weren’t going to plan.
Or, maybe they were. Champions, after all, are refined in the fire of early-season adversity.
Having graduating its four captains in speedy scorer Nolan Kim, defensive stalwarts Thomas Turilli and Thomas Steele and goalie Mason Geller, Ives said the cliche ‘next-man-up’ mantra pervaded the locker room in August. Depth was a serious concern.
“We knew we had a couple of key cogs coming back on our team,” Ives said. “We were thinking, ‘oh we’re five, six, seven players deep, and then, you know, where does everyone else fit in from there?'”
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Reserves stepped up. Underclassmen stepped in.
“I’ve just been really impressed,” Ives said. “Just throwing players into the fire and giving them the opportunity.”
The No. 2-ranked Gore Rangers have rattled off wins in six of their last seven games playing against 3A and 4A schools. Heading into their ninth contest of September on Friday, when they’ll travel to No. 4 Crested Butte — the team whose back-to-back run as 2A state champions was ended by the Gore Rangers in last year’s gritty state semifinal victory — VMS can end the month with this message: Different team, different path, same formula, same goal.
Pulse on the pitch
One returning talent from last year’s squad is midfielder Rutley Heinemann. The junior’s leadership impact extends beyond his team-high 13 goals. His daily full-gas example focuses everyone, Ives said. Unlike most stars contently riding the natural ebb and flow of glorious game days and prosaic practices, Heinemann only knows one speed.
“It could be a mundane, Wednesday practice, we don’t have a game for five days, and Rutley is out there going 100 miles an hour, doing 100%,” Ives said. “He expects a lot out of his teammates and I think they respond to that very well. When they see him — as skilled of a player as he is, still working hard, still going all out in practice — I think that motivates all the other guys.”
Ives said Heinemann might light up the scoreboard, but he isn’t the team’s singular heartbeat.
“I think a lot of what makes our team go is just the collective captainship,” he said of the team’s pulse on the pitch, adding that chemistry is cultivated within the close-knit VMS community 12 months a year.
“They all kind of take leadership roles at different points in the sports calendar year at VMS,” Ives said, pointing out that a bench player on his team might be a lacrosse star. “I think that’s kind of unique.”
Alex Krupka, an elite Alpine skier in the winter and the lacrosse team’s ultra-athletic goalie in the spring, is one example. He’s teamed up with Evan Sapp to form one of the fastest defensive units in 2A.
“They’re tremendous soccer players, but I think their strength and asset is just their raw athletic ability,” Ives said. “So from a defensive perspective, that allows us to match speed for speed against opposing strikers.”
Teammates call Sapp ‘four-six,’ in reference to his clocking a laser-timed 4.6 40-yard dash at practice last year, but Ives said the senior’s swiftness isn’t his only superpower. “He’s a great leader,” the coach said of the “positive, encouraging” captain. When Sapp suggested his coach consider increasing the freshmen’s playing time, he listened.
“I was like, ‘alright, if you’re seeing it, then like, yeah, man let’s roll with it,'” Ives recalled.
Freshmen Alex Uribe and Colm Kinney have impressed each time their numbers have been called.
Ives said Uribe, the younger brother of the team’s junior forward, Sebastian, is “savvy” and “composed” no matter what kind of on-ball pressure is thrust upon him.
“He doesn’t speed up; he’s not playing chaotic,” Ives said. “It’s just really cool to watch — being able to do that at such a young age.”
Kinney started the year on junior varsity, where coaches hoped to give him a chance to be a leader. Injuries forced coaches to bring him up to a varsity defensive midfield role.
“And he’s been doing great,” Ives complimented. “When he wins the ball he’s making great decisions and distributing up to the midfield.”
The widespread contributions have turned a perceived weakness — depth — into the team’s strength.
“And I think that just speaks to the boys’ commitment to practice,” Ives said. “They’re coming out every single day, working, preparing, trying to get better …as well as their faith in the coaching staff. Having trust in us that we’re going to try and put them in a position for success.”
It’s why Ives is all about the demanding regular-season schedule.
Watching his team bounce back from the Lotus match with two-straight wins against Fruita Monument and Coal Ridge (albeit through chain-linked fences as he served his suspension), Ives came to recognize the loss as a poignant chapter in the season’s storybook.
“I think that was a turning point for sure,” he said. “I think early in the season, we were talking to the refs, complaining about calls, arguing with the other players — myself included — and you know, I’m not proud of it,” the coach continued.
“I think collectively as a program, (since then) we’ve kind of just been letting our play do the talking.”
The Gore Rangers came home for Tuesday-Thursday wins against Rifle (3-2) and Aspen (8-0). Then came the annual barometer: 3A No.1 Colorado Academy on Sept. 19. In 2021, VMS fell 1-0. Last year brought a 2-0 loss to the Mustangs, who’ve only lost once in their last 28 contests.
“The message was, ‘we’re competitive, but we’re yet to score against these guys,'” Ives said.
Aye-aye captain. VMS scored 20 seconds into the game and found themselves up 2-0 halfway through the first. Up 2-1 at halftime, the Gore Rangers knew the defending 3A state champs weren’t going to lose their first game of the season without a fight.
The Mustangs quickly surged to a 3-2 lead. VMS tied it up again with 25 minutes remaining. Then, the floodgates flew open.
“We had about a 10-12 minute span where, just kind of, the wheels fell off,” Ives said. “Like a great team, they capitalized on every single mistake that we made. All of a sudden, next time I look at the scoreboard, it’s 7-3.”
Though he said the team was deflated by the outcome, Ives took several positives from the loss. Going up against tough competition — they also fell to 4A Steamboat Springs 1-0 in their second game of the season — is all part of the plan.
“I think early-season adversity is great, especially when you have deep playoff aspirations,” Ives said.
“We know we’re going to win some of those games, we know we’re going to lose some of those games, but I think through those tough battles you learn a lot about yourself as an individual and your team.”
And so it continues on Friday against the Titans, who are 8-1-2. Ives said Crested Butte has new faces, too. A scouting report, however, is secondary to taking care of business internally.
“I’m confident of where we’re at,” Ives said before inadvertently offering a foreshadow of Vail Mountain’s post-season formula — and target.
“If we go out and play our game to our full capability, I think at the end we’re going to like where we’re standing.”