The outcome of Ozark’s season-finale Saturday took Caleb Lepant back to his eighth-grade year, when he watched Troy Davidson lead the 2019 Tigers to a District title by repeatedly scoring on corner kicks.
“That team, that's what took them so far, their ability to score on set pieces,” Lepant said.
The 2019 Tigers and the 2023 Tigers both finished with 24 wins, but that’s about where the similarities end.
Ozark’s vulnerability on corner kicks reared its ugly head in the Tigers’ 2-1 setback at the hands of Rockhurst in the teams’ Class 4 Quarterfinal matchup. Both of the Hawklets' goals were the result of corner kicks, the first score an olimpico goal and the second score coming off a rebound following a corner kick.
Meanwhile, Ozark failed to find the back of the net on its corner kick opportunities for the third straight match.
"Guarding corner kicks, gaining position and losing your man, has been one of our (weaknesses)," midfielder Phin Scott said. “When we don't talk to each other and lose track of who we are guarding, (the opponent) beat us to it.”
“I've said many times this year that with the height we have — being one of the tallest teams in the area — we’re not good enough in the air,” coach Zack Owens added. "I’d say, ‘I hope that doesn't come back to bite us.’ Today it did. Sometimes as a coach you hate being right. It's going to haunt me.”
Likewise, Owens is going to re-play in his mind Ozark’s struggles at the start of matches. The Tigers fell behind 1-0 in the early going to Kickapoo in a District semifinal, to Nixa in a District final and to Rockhurst.
The Hawklets needed less than three minutes to get on the board.
“I tried having us not do the same thing before every match,” Owens said. “Today, tactically in pre-game I talked to the players as groups about having a different mindset of how we start, to be ready to go right from the kickoff, not 5-10 minutes into the match.
“(Rockhurst) is too good of a team to have to dig out of a hole,” he added.
Defending Class 4 state champion Rockhurst (22-0) ran its winning streak to 31 matches. The Hawklets are ranked No. 2 nationally by the United Soccer Coaches Association.
Ozark was obviously timid at the outset and allowed Rockhurst’s first goal to come far too easy. Otherwise, the Tigers gave a good account of themselves and down the stretch were obviously the most aggressive team.
It was 1-0 Rockhurst at halftime and the Hawklets made it 2-0 10 minutes into the second half.
Ozark cut its deficit in half on a free-kick goal by Scott with 10 minutes remaining. He rocketed his kick off a Hawlets defender and into the back of the net.
“I was pretty positive I could score on that one,” Scott said. “I’ve been known to score on my free kicks this season, so I felt good about it.
“It felt good to bounce back,” he aded. “I wish we would have done it earlier. By the time we did, it was a little too late. But I'm glad we were able to keep fighting.”
“We knew they weren't invincible,” Lepant said. “We gave them a run for their money. I don't think they expected that.”
Ozark had a handful of legit shots on goal. Midway through the second half, Alex Williams had a header hit a post. In the final few minutes Micah Thrasher made quite a bid to tie things up. He found space on a shot across the field and in between Rockhurst defenders, only to miss the goal by no more than a foot.
“I saw the back post open and tried to squeeze it in,” Thrasher said. “It was a really hard shot. I was pleased with it, but would have been even more pleased if it would have went in.”
“Soccer is a cruel game sometimes,” Lepant said. “The bounce sometimes doesn't go your way and sometimes the refs see things a different way than you see it.”
Lepant closed his Ozark career with a single-season school-record 37 goals. Not surprisingly, he was the focus of Rockhurst’s defense, with the Hawklets coach repeatedly shouting to his players, ‘Watch No. 11.’”
“I don’t think they watched any film on us. They didn’t know anything about us,” Lepant said. “But I broke free a few times on some runs and their coach saw it. It's a little ego boost when you hear the other coach say, ‘Watch him.’”
Owens couldn’t help but wonder what the officials were watching during a sequence in the first half. He felt Williams was dragged to the turf as he was about to receive the ball in the penalty box. Alas, no whistle blew.
“I thought we got upended a couple times in moments in which the whistle could have been blown our way,” Owens said. “But the referees are human and make mistakes. Those are things you look at immediately following a match with anger. But eventually that will subside and we'll look at the mistakes we made.”
Ozark ‘keeper Carson Sandgren turned in an outstanding performance with several exceptional saves. His best stop came on a Rockhurst shot from point-blank range that he dove to his left to deflect. Sandgren began his dive even before the Hawklets player struck the ball.
“From his angle, I knew he didn't have much of a choice than to go that way,” Sandgren said. “I’ve got to put faith in myself and my judgment and go for it. If I don't make the leap, that's a ball I'm probably not going to get to.
“Any way I can help my team in a match when we're down like that, it's really important to give my team hope,” he added.
Sandgren and Ozark’s “West Bluff Wall” yielded opponents an average of only 0.9 goals a match. Only the 2018 and 2019 Tigers allowed fewer goals over the past 15 seasons.
“He’s had a great season and only gotten better and better," Owens said of his sophomore ‘keeper. “I’m super pleased with how well he played. He reads the ball well and is quick to see where it's going to go and react. He’s a heads-up player.”
Sandgren shined, even while injuring a knee in the second half.
“I landed on my knee wrong and was struggling for a second,” Sandgren said. “But you've got to keep playing on. You've got to keep pushing through it and find a way.
“It was great to be part of a game like this,” he added. “It stinks we lost. But it was a great challenge, a different level of experience that I've got to see to grow and get better.”
Ozark was at home for all four of its playoff matches and attendance grew with each match.
“The crowd we had and the support from our community, to look up at the stands and see all the people who came out, I had tears running down my face,” Lepant said. “I’m glad it was a close game, that we gave them something to watch
“It's heartbreaking that this is our last game on this field for all our seniors,” he added. “I grew up with all these boys playing soccer, from when we were 10 years old kicking the ball around at the park. To stay with the same group of guys year after year, they've become my brothers. It's sad to know we’re done playing.”