PHOENIX - Top-seeded Phoenix Xavier is the two-time defending Class 5A Division I girls state soccer champions, and on Wednesday night at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert, the Gators took another step towards defending their crown with a 3-1 win over No. 5 Desert Vista in the semifinals.
The game started slowly as neither team was able to get a good look at a shot.
Both defenses stayed between the ball and the goal as the first real threat came with 23 minutes left in the first half when Nicole Adams of the Thunder kicked a ball high towards the top of the net which Xavier goalkeeper Hannah Griffith made a fantastic save on by jumping to catch the ball at its highest point, inches from the top of the goal post.
That was just the start of some great plays as with 13:46 remaining in the first half Emily Holzmeister shot from about the 25 yard line and kicked it through the net over the head of the Desert Vista goalkeeper MacKenzie Meegan, for a 1-0 Gator lead.
The Thunder answered with 6:30 left in the first half on a goal by Brenna Leftwich to tie the match.
Leftwich fought for the ball and took it away from the defender giving her just enough room and time to kick the ball through the corner of the net from about 20-yards out.
Xavier had one final shot to break the tie before the first half ended but missed off the left goalpost with about five seconds left in the first half.
At the start of the second half both teams missed several shots off the goalpost and neither was able to gain a clear advantage.
"These are two similar teams and both like to possess the ball," Xavier coach Barb Chura said. "Desert Vista takes possession a lot by booming kicks out to their side of the field, our girls were great at staying in front and not letting them get ahead of us."
Finally with 11:07 left in the second half, Xavier freshman Nikki Walts broke the tie with a goal on an assist from Holzmeister.
The rest of the second half the Thunder tried to tie the game with a couple of long distance shots but none were very close as Xavier appeared to wear down Desert Vista.
"Our girls made smart decisions late and started listening to a lot of what we were telling them." Chura said.
The Gators would add a final goal with about 2:00 left in the game as Walts scored on an assist from Sam O'Connor.
"Nikki Walts is a big time player. I told her at halftime to come out and show everybody what a big time player she is. We lost 13 seniors last year and eight starters. To dominate and do what we're doing and get back in the finals is amazing." Chura said.
Desert Vista coach Paul Manoogian expects to get back to this game next year.
"We will be back here at this time next year," he said. "We had our chances to put the ball in the net this game. In the months of January and February we found our stride and kept plugging away and stayed strong mentally. We had a couple of defensive lapses in the second half that hurt us.
Xavier will play Hamilton on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in the championship game also at Campo Verde High School.