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Local teams get set for soccer playoffs
The thunderous sound of pounding bleachers filled Irv Pallack Field as Kofa's boys soccer team continued working toward its 5 p.m. playoff matchup against No. 6 Gilbert Wednesday.
The Kings had a strong season record-wise this year, but losses to San Luis and Cibola and tying with Yuma High a few weeks ago put a dent in their three-year home winning streak. Despite the adversity, the Kings never stopped playing the same style of soccer. Kofa ended its season with a 3-0 win over the Criminals by out-shooting, out-scoring and out-playing.
“This is your last game of the season,” coach Jamie Nicewander said he told his players before the game. “How are you going to respond to that stress? And we intentionally stressed them out in practice, we're on them, riding them so when it comes game time, they can relax.
“Nothing's more stressful than going to a state playoff game knowing there's college coaches watching you, knowing they could hand you a piece of paper saying welcome to college soccer, and all the dollars that implies.”
Gilbert went 11-0-1 this season, but that's not something Nicewander is looking at.
“We know Gilbert is a great team, they've always been a great team,” he said. “When you hit state playoffs, it's all out there. In regards to their record, our record going in, it doesn't matter now. It just comes down to who shows up to play better on Wednesday. That's what it really comes down to.”
After missing state last year due to off-the-field issues, the Kings are hungry to get back to the playoff picture. According to Nicewander, in the past four years the Kings have lost only to a state finalist, and three out of the four have been at the hands of the eventual state champion.
“There's no doubt in my mind this team has what it takes to get there,” Nicewander said. “They just have to bring it to game day.
“Game day is a whole different cat, and you have to find a way to skin that cat. You have to get out there and bring it all. You have to remember that this is potentially the last game of your season, and how do you want to go out, how do you want to be remembered?”
San Luis takes on Alhambra
The highs were high and the lows were lower for the Sidewinders this season, but coach Ian McDougall has seen his team grow exponentially as they get ready to face No. 7-seeded Alhambra at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
San Luis broke Kofa's three-year home winning streak before Christmas break but struggled mightily after returning due to a depleted roster. The Sidewinders lost at Cibola 2-1 and later that week to Kofa at home 5-1.
“Our problems were self-caused at Christmas,” McDougall said. “I think that we learned a lot from it as a team, what can happen to you when you only have 12, 13, 14 guys on your active roster going into what could arguably your two biggest games of the year.
“Cibola and Kofa just physically beat us up. Conditioning-wise, we just couldn't hang with them for 80 minutes.”
Since the Kofa loss, San Luis is on a five-game winning streak heading into the tournament.
Their opponent Alhambra lost to Cibola at home 2-0 this year, but since Alhambra played a man down most of the game due to a red card in the 15th minute, McDougall isn't sure how much he can read into that game.
“I think they present some unique challenges from what I've heard. They're tall, they like to use their height and aggressiveness off of set plays, which for us being a shorter team doesn't play to our strengths at all. But at this point, I think we're used to it because what team is really shorter than us?”
Despite being one of the shorter teams, San Luis' ability to play the ball in the air can counteract some of Alhambra's height.
“The biggest difference between this year and the past few years is we've always had a few defenders that could really head the ball well and clear danger,” McDougall said. “This year we have three or four guys that all are pretty good in the air, so we haven't had as many problems off of set pieces that we've had in the past. So I'm hoping that's the case against Alhambra.”
Alhambra also reminds McDougall of a local team they've beaten.
“From what I've heard, they like to get forward really quick and play fast, which leads me to believe that they play a lot like Kofa. If you can shut them down, you can really frustrate a team like that. And if you screw it up, they can score a lot of goals on you.”
San Luis enters the playoffs as the No. 10 seed, but at this point none of that is registering with McDougall.
“When you're in Division I, everybody's good when you get to this stage People talk about who's going to be the big upset, but there aren't really any upsets. Maybe if the 16 beats the No. 1, but when you look at the teams five through 13, anybody can win those matchups. It's just a matter of getting here, and anytime you play in a one-off tournament, anybody can have a good day and anybody can have a bad day.”
YC's core four face No. 8 Scottsdale Prep
Yuma Catholic seniors Jocelyn Higuera, Morgan Frank, Kalaina Barnett and Krysta Aitken have been the staple of Shamrock soccer for the past four years and are looking to go out on top as they face No. 8 Scottsdale Prep today at 3 p.m.
“It's bittersweet, completely bittersweet,” Frank said. “Sad in that it's ending, exciting in that we're going to state again and exciting that we've been together for four years. Not many people can say that; we've gotten really close.”
The seniors have made the state playoffs every year of their Shamrock tenure except for last year, so making sure a playoff spot was secure was one of their goals early on.
“We worked hard the other years, but this year it's been the standard,” Aitken said. “We set our expectations really high.”
Scottsdale Prep is a bit of a mystery to Shamrock coach Jesus Quintana, but having consistency and health has helped his team get where it is.
“This year we seemed to be a little bit more consistent because we were able to play through some of those illnesses that we had, so we were able to maintain that level,” Quintana said.
“A lot of the credit goes to the seniors; they've been pretty consistent. They've' been the core of the team. The experience they've provided having been here for the past four seasons ... provided that stability for the team.”
Chemistry has also been an important factor for the Shamrocks this season, leading to an offense that scored 3.4 goals a game.
“Last year and the year before, we weren't really adhesive,” Frank said. “We didn't work together as a team. We had good players individually, but we just never clicked. This year we clicked, we have chemistry and it makes all the difference.”
Kofa hosts first playoff game under Velasquez
After losing at Basha 3-0 on Jan. 15, Kofa coach Marisela Velasquez thought her team's playoff chances might be over.
But despite being ranked No. 16 with only two games left, some things broke the Kings' way, allowing them to leapfrog nine spots to end up at No. 7 with the right to host a playoff game at 5 p.m. today against Chaparral.
“It was a pleasant surprise,” Velasquez said. “I know the girls are excited, the school's excited. In my five years at Kofa, we've never hosted a playoff game, so the girls are happy. Parents that usually can't go out of town are going to be able to catch the game, and their school and friends are going to be able to support them. It's a very exciting time for us.”
The Kings finished their season nearly perfect at 12-1, but like most playoff teams, the postseason is a different animal.
“We're just definitely wiping the slate clean,” Velasquez said. “I know since the very beginning, for the seniors especially, their goal was always to make it to the playoffs and see how far we could go. Every other time we've been in the playoffs it's been a one and done.
“I know they've forgotten about regular season. They're starting over, and we're hoping to get a win or two and see how far we can go.”