The Denver North High School Vikings Men’s Soccer team came up just short in their quest for the first state championship in program history. Fifth ranked North lost 1-0 to No. 2 Windsor in the 4A title game on a goal with 17 minutes remaining in regulation last Sunday.
“We started off the game very sharp, had a few opportunities, wasn’t able to finish them, but that’s part of the game,” said senior Alex Martinez, the team’s standout midfielder.
Despite a disappointing ending to their season, North has quietly established itself as one of the premier high school soccer programs in Colorado. Under head coach Clay Porter, The Vikings reached the state quarterfinals or higher in the last five seasons. The run has included two state title appearances in three years and back-to-back city championships.
A strong foundation which featured seven seniors this season – including Martinez and fellow midfielder Lorenzo Hernandez – played an integral role in North’s run to a state title game.
“Overall we had a very close connection and we were like family,” Martinez said about the group. “We always had each others’ back and we were always there.”
For the North soccer program, finding sustained success has been an ongoing process. A process that began when coach Porter had to build the team from scratch after taking over 12 years ago.
“I started with a bag of old jerseys from the previous 15 years, ten cones, and two flat sized soccer balls,” Porter recalled. “Now we have a beautiful turf, all the equipment we need to be successful, and a culture of players that understand what it takes to be successful.”
Due to COVID-19 concerns, the fall soccer season was postponed until the spring. The pushback created much colder weather at the start of the season. Vikings dealt with the unfavorable conditions by persevering through the elements and taking matters into their own hands. For example, when snow fell, the team decided to shovel off the field together so they could practice. Embracing the circumstances, rallying around one another, and working as a group to achieve a common goal, players believe, was crucial to the program’s success.
Although the team didn’t play games until the spring, they practiced twice a week between July and March, taking a brief pause for Christmas. Coach Porter feels continuing to practice through the down period helped keep his players prepared and sane during the pandemic.
“I’d be surprised if anyone else in the state was as crazy as we were about continuing to have kids play,” Porter said. “It got a little monotonous at times because of the restrictions on what we could do, but we kept doing it for the kids’ mental health and our own.”
Lorenzo Hernandez tested positive for COVID before the season started, creating concern that he’d be sidelined for a few games or unable to play. After a ten-day recovery period, followed by a negative test result, the senior was able to gradually make a return to the field.
Per state guidelines, Hernandez was required to practice with the team for a designated period of time (first a half hour, then 45 minutes, and finally an hour), prior to making a full comeback. The combination of playing in the spring, and being unable to practice with the team, forced Hernandez to adjust on the fly.
“It made the season incredibly fast,” Hernandez said. “When the season came, it was like zero to 60 right away – two games maybe three games in a week so there wasn’t really as much time to prepare as a team.”
After a successful high school career, Hernandez aspires to play at the college level. For the soon-to-be graduate, playing soccer has become a deep-rooted passion, one that’s become about living in the moment and appreciating every game.
“It’s kind of surreal, you don’t realize it in the moment but even now going to the finals happened so quick,” Hernandez said. “In a couple of months, I’ll probably be like we did all of that and take it in.”
After a dominant stretch, Hernandez, Martinez, and coach Porter, all feel a solid base for the North’s soccer team to build upon has been set. A 2021 season defined by finding success and overcoming adversity during a trying time has only strengthened the program’s core. For the next wave of players, bringing the state championship trophy home will be the ultimate goal.
Jack Stern is a Denver based freelance multimedia journalist, reporting on all things Colorado. Previously, he covered the Colorado Buffaloes football and basketball team for SBNation and Rivals.com.