It'd be hard to top Mesa's boys soccer team's start to this season.
What figured to be a solid core of players returning in 2012-2013 has been just that, and the Jackrabbits have scored goals early and often most of the way through the first month of the regular season.
It happened again on Saturday, as Mesa topped Mountain View, 4-2, to win the school's own Jackrabbit Invitational championship.
It was the second time this season the Jackrabbits knocked off the rival-Toros, and Mesa (9-2-1, 3-0-1 in power rankings matches) heads into its pseudo-winter break on a roll. Come early January, the power rankings matches heat up, beginning with Mountain View again on Jan. 8.
"We're playing our style really well," Mesa coach T.J. Hagen said. "We have the players to do it, maybe a bit more composed this year. Our movement is good and we're passing the ball well."
The pool play matches were shortened to 30-minute halves all week because of bad weather last week and to try and preserve the beaten up field, but when the Jackrabbits lost to Casa Grande Vista Grande earlier in the week (Mesa's other loss was 3-1 to Hamilton in the Tempe Diablo Classic), Hagen felt his team's play on a more narrow JV field coupled with a slow start might have reinforced the need to start strong.
Saturday's championship returned to 40-minute halves, but Mesa only needed four minutes to get on the scoreboard. A clearing attempt by Mountain View off a Mesa corner kick was missed, and Alex Gutierrez had time to unwind a shot from 25 yards away.
"That was beautiful," Hagen said. "It set the tone."
Alvaro Penaloza tied the match at 1-1 for Mountain View off a scramble for the loose ball following a throw-in. But the Jackrabbits hounded Mountain View's zone most of the first half, and either hit the post or had close-up chances blocked by Mountain View defenders to keep it tied at halftime.
Brian Perea had three touches before his left foot produced a second-half goal, and Manny Venzor made a nifty move to get inside the goalie box and hit the corner for a 3-1 Mesa lead.
But Ben Nelson - normally the Toros starting goalkeeper whom coach Kevin Burke let play the field - earned a penalty shot and his goal made it 3-2 with 12 minutes left.
A few minutes later, however, Meas midfielder Carlos Ibarra's seemingly harmless 75-yard clearing attempt brought out normally-backup goalkeeper Octavio Reyna from the net, but he came out too far and the ball took one high bounce on the hard field, over his head and into the net for Mesa's insurance goal.
Still, Mountain View (4-5-1) came back twice in the match, which made things considerably more interesting than the 3-0 loss to Mesa a week ago. The Toros reached the title match with wins against Casa Grande and Red Mountain, with a tie against Phoenix Central in between.
The rebuilding, however, will continue. New Toros coach Kevin Burke is using what he called a "three-year plan," and is trying to instill a more disciplined approach. It hasn't been easy: last season's graduation losses, a couple kids left the program, and the Toros are already dealing with significant injuries. Burke said a few freshman are regular starters and senior forward Pepe Alonso is trying to play through a broken bone in his foot).
Mesa has been there before, but the Jackrabbits feel ready for the regular season to ramp up after the upcoming holiday tournaments (Arizona Soccer Showcase and Dobson Mustang Classic) and the chance to take on a few more of the upper echelon programs in the two months ahead.
"I think we fit right in," Hagen said.
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.