The Peninsula College men celebrate their 2023 NWAC championship in Tukwila on Sunday after defeating Highline 11-10 in penalty kicks. (Peninsula College)

The Peninsula College men celebrate their 2023 NWAC championship in Tukwila on Sunday after defeating Highline 11-10 in penalty kicks. (Peninsula College)

COLLEGE SOCCER: NWAC champion Peninsula College men battled back from adversity all season

PORT ANGELES — A bus breaking down in a ferry line at the worst possible moment just kind of symbolizes the adversity that the Peninsula College men’s soccer team had to face all season.

In the Pirates’ NWAC championship match against Highline, the men continued to have adversity thrown at them.

Near the end of their game against Highline, the Pirates got a beautiful header from Nil Grau on a corner kick that beat the Thunderbirds’ goalkeeper, but it bounced off the crossbar and refused to go in. That would have given Peninsula a likely insurmountable 3-1 lead with only a few minutes left to play.

Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, Highline got an equalizer in the 86th minute of regulation.

The Pirates could have been deflated by that goal, but they hung tough through two overtimes, setting the stage for penalty kicks.

Another deflating moment. Peninsula thought it had won the game as goalkeeper Laurin Lettow made a clutch save. But the referees ruled he had come off the line early, creating a rekick, which Highline converted. The free kicks went to a staggering 11 rounds, with Grau actually having to take two penalty kicks as the entire Pirates’ lineup made kicks.

Finally, Lettow made a second spectacular save, and this time it stood up. The Pirates won the penalties 11-10.

“It still feels like a dream. I’m still not fully processing it,” said Matthew Enriquez, who had the Pirates’ opening goal early in the match.

“I still haven’t realized yet how big it is. What we’ve done,” said Pip van der Ende. “There were so many good teams in our region, in the playoffs. And we’re the best.”

This was after the team’s bus broke down in the ferry lane on the way to Tukwila. The players had to walk onto the ferry and arrange transportation from Seattle to Tukwila to get to their game.

This all came after a challenging season. Peninsula was having its usual good year, but at midway through the season, the Pirates were buried in fourth place behind Bellevue, Everett and Whatcom. The Pirates went 5-1-1 down the stretch to win the North Region, having to win their final regular season match to clinch a Region championship.

van der Ende said the exceptionally difficult North Region helped prepare the Pirates.

“We already prepared for it in-season. When we are there [in the Final Four], we felt like we had already been through it in-season,” he said.

Coach Jake Hughes won his second NWAC championship as a coach, winning in 2019. He also won as a player for Peninsula in 2010.

Hughes said this game was typical of NWAC championship battles, which always seem to be close. In 2019, the Pirates also had to go to penalty kicks to win.

“You have the two best teams there, and there’s generally a lot of parity,” he said. “Both teams are fighting for something and putting all of their energy into that game.”

Hughes used the word “unity” to describe this year’s team.

“This team reminds me somewhat of our team in 2010,” Hughes said. “That team got knocked down a few times and kept getting off the canvas. It wasn’t a straight path [to the championship] this year.”

“The adversity we overcame made us stronger,” he said.

Enriquez agreed that when the team was dropping points in some early games, “it helped us develop our character. We definitely peaked at the right time of the season. As a team, if we recognized a problem, we would get together and find a solution to them.”

When asked if he had ever seen or been involved in an 11-round penalty kick, Hughes said, “No. To be honest, I really can’t think of one.” He said it is definitely an NWAC record for longest penalty kick phase.

“It was so crazy,” van der Ende said of the shootout. He said after the first Lettow save was disallowed, the Pirates didn’t get discouraged. “I never had a doubt in my mind we were going to win,” he said.

Hughes also pointed to Grau’s effort, having to take two penalty kicks because the Pirates had completely gone through their lineup.

“To make one penalty kick is difficult. To have to make two penalty kicks is really quite difficult to say the least,” he said.

He also singled out Lettow’s effort, who made the save to give the Pirates the title.

“That was unbelievable. He’s really a special guy, a special keeper,” Hughes said.

Lettow said that after his first penalty kick save was disallowed, “I said to myself, ‘I will save the next one.’ ”

“We trusted our goalkeeper. He’s amazing,” Enriquez said. “We knew what the result was going to be.”

This is the sixth Peninsula College men’s soccer championship. There will be a celebration of the men’s championship at the Peninsula College Pirate Union Building at 12:30 p.m. today.

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