Updated as of Tuesday, November 1, 2016 11:21 PM
PRESCOTT — “Due to an unprecedented chain of events,” as Yavapai College athletic director Brad Clifford said on Tuesday, Nov. 1, the Roughriders’ men’s soccer team will compete in the National Junior College Athletic Association’s (NJCAA) West District Tournament this Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4 and 5, in Laramie, Wyoming.
Yavapai, the Arizona Conference’s regular-season champion, was eliminated from the postseason for the third straight year by Phoenix College in the NJCAA Region I, Division I semifinals last Thursday, Oct. 27, at Ken Lindley Field in Prescott.
However, the NJCAA ruled Tuesday that region tournament finalists Pima and Phoenix were disqualified for the remainder of the postseason after the teams fought in the championship match, which Pima won 3-1 Saturday, Oct. 29, in Tucson. Clifford said he believes the NJCAA decided to have the region ask Yavapai to go to the district tournament instead.
NJCAA Region 1 director Art Becker called Clifford at 10:17 a.m., presumably after the NJCAA watched videotape of the altercation, which is unavailable on the Internet. Becker wasn’t immediately available for comment on Tuesday.
Clifford said he was busy securing a bus, hotel rooms and meal money for the team shortly after the announcement.
“Obviously, this wasn’t in our plans,” Clifford said. “I’ve heard of things like that [disqualifications], but it’s obviously very rare, and for that to happen in this conference, it’s unprecedented. We’re surprised, we’re excited. We’re very humbled by the opportunity.”
The NJCAA D-I No. 11-ranked Roughriders (18-3-0 overall record) now have a rare chance at redemption with a national tournament berth on the line.
At the West District tournament, Yavapai will face Trinidad State Junior College (Colorado) at 2 p.m. Arizona time on Friday at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Host Laramie County C.C. will take on Southern Nevada College beforehand in the other half of the bracket at 11:30 a.m.
The winner of Trinidad-Yavapai and Laramie-Southern Nevada plays on Saturday for the West District Championship. Both district finalists receive spots into the NJCAA National Tournament Nov. 14-16 and Nov. 18 and 19 in Tyler, Texas.
Yavapai heads to Wyoming this morning, Nov. 2.
“I am very happy for the players,” an emotional Yavapai College coach Mike Pantalione said from practice Tuesday afternoon. “They have worked hard and improved all season long. They are quality people. If anybody deserves an opportunity, it’s them. We’ve always acted with class when we went down to defeat.”
Clifford said the NJCAA deemed Pima and Phoenix ineligible “due to unsportsmanlike conduct,” but added that he was given no further explanation by the NJCAA. In contrast, the Roughriders did not receive a red card the entire season and averaged “half a yellow card a game,” Pantalione said.
“When you receive an opportunity that you didn’t expect to receive, you ought to take it,” Yavapai associate coach Hugh Bell said. “I feel rewarded. We work very, very hard. They [2016 Roughriders] are an overachieving team. Consciously, they deserve a chance and will do their 100 percent best to represent our school. That’s all you can ask for.”
The players were thrilled, albeit shocked, about the development. Yavapai goalie Justin Motzkus said the team was frustrated with the loss to Phoenix and could not have imagined they’d get a second chance.
“It’s still unbelievable to me – I’m so happy,” Motzkus added. “Walking up [to the field Tuesday] was a completely different feeling. We had expected the season to be over. We really feel like we have something to prove and we have a good opportunity to go far.”
Clifford added that Yavapai was chosen by the NJCAA on Tuesday to represent Region I because the Roughriders won the regular-season conference championship. Yavapai also defeated Arizona Western College, the other semifinalist in the Region I tournament, 2-1, in October.
Pantalione said Clifford informed him and Bell about the possibility of Yavapai being awarded the district berth during a recruiting strategies meeting late Tuesday morning. Afterwards, the Region I representative called Yavapai to give the squad the district spot.
Pantalione subsequently sent out a mass email to his players about conducting an “emergency meeting” with them. A few hours later, Yavapai’s players were out practicing at Lindley Field.
“For sure, it’s a gift,” said Yavapai freshman defender John Kanner, adding that he was most thrilled for hard-working sophomore center back Jacob Malach. “It gives us a new life, big-time. We thought our sophomores were done, and now we get to play again. We’re going to be really fired up.”
The Roughriders hadn’t had a training session since last Wednesday and “most of their equipment is at the dry cleaner’s right now,” Pantalione said.
Yavapai’s players and coaching staff don’t seem bothered one bit.
“We just have to prepare for a 90-minute match,” the coach added. “We will have our legs underneath us. This is one time where we don’t need a motivational speech.”
After last Thursday’s tough defeat, Pantalione said he “had it in the back of my mind” that it’s “always possible to advance, especially if the teams [in the region final] act inappropriately.”
“The regional directors can replace one team for another,” Pantalione added regarding NJCAA rules. “There are little provisions [in the bylaws] if there are unusual or inappropriate activities.”
Yavapai College has won an NJCAA D-I record seven national titles since 1990. After the playoff loss to Phoenix, Pantalione told his players “good things happen to good people.”
“In college soccer, there are times where programs lose sight of who they’re representing,” said Pantalione, referring to the college. “We don’t have all of the answers [as a program], but we’ve always gone out in a classy manner. We’ve been humble in victory and gracious in defeat. I am happy this team will experience the postseason outside of Arizona.”
Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc. Reach him at 928-445-3333 ext. 2039, or 928-642-7865.