Loco win over Lobos

U head soccer coach Rich Manning expected the No. 10 Utes (15-4-0) to have a tough time with the stalwart New Mexico (8-7-5) defense in their Mountain West Conference Tournament semifinal showdown.

“Coming in I thought, ‘Man, I’m gonna have an ulcer,'” he said. “We hate to play them. It was always going to be a tough game against a team with two things going for them: They’ve got nothing to lose and they’ve been here before.”

Thursday night’s 2-1 victory drew heart-wrenching palpitations from players on both benches, as the two teams traded punches at the dusk and dawn of regular time before sophomore Adele Letro’s almost telekinetic breakaway score in the first overtime period ended New Mexico’s hopes for an upset and kept alive the U’s streak of 12 straight conference victories.

Junior Melissa Crespo started things off to the liking of Manning’s Utes, finishing a precisely placed Amanda Feigt pass with a laser-guided header just more than one minute into the action.

Crespo credits a conversation with Feigt, a track standout, for the expert timing of the play.

“It was a perfect cross,” Crespo said. “I talked with her before the game about waiting for me to catch up on those-Amanda is so much faster than me. She slowed down and gave me a second to run in there.”

The Utes controlled possession for the remainder of the first half, but they were unable to maintain their offensive efforts. The second half brought increased pressure from the Kit Vela-coached Lobo attack, to which the Utes responded with a bend-but-don’t-break defensive approach that would ironically shatter their aura of invulnerability late in the second half.

“We were letting down,” Crespo said. “Each quarter of the game our intensity dropped. We got comfortable, and we weren’t playing ‘Utah style.'”

The Utes conceded their first goal in 10 games against a Mountain West opponent in the 84th minute, when junior Amber Wetsch’s long ball into the Ute box was parried by Mason high into the air and onto the waiting head of freshly substituted Lobo sophomore Ashley Richardson.

“It’s been a while since watching a ball go in our net,” Manning said. “My first thought was ‘Game on!’ I wanted to see how we’d respond.”

Shaken but not deterred, the Utes came out in fierce pursuit of a goal in the first overtime period. It didn’t take long for them to break the deadlock, when the fleet-footed Letro intercepted a pass back at full steam and coolly chipped it past the keeper for her 11th goal, to the delight of the raucous hometown supporters.

Letro’s ears were as keen as her feet on the game-winning play.

“I heard (a Lobo player) say ‘Head it back!’ and I was like ‘OK, I’m gonna get this,'” Letro said. “The pass was just an inch too short, and I got it.”

The Utes will play for the championship against UNLV on Saturday at Ute Field (noon).

Lennie Mahler

Melissa Crespo races New Mexico’s Kaela Kelly to a stray ball in the first half of the MWC tournament match Thursday night at Ute Field. Crespo scored an early goal giving the Utes a 1-0 lead over the Lobos.

Lennie Mahler

Amanda Feigt takes the ball toward the Lobos’ goal in the first half of Thursday’s MWC tournament match.