There can’t be March Madness in February, but the way this 5A Division I girls state soccer tournament has gone, forgive Phoenix Xavier for the comparisons.
Viewed as the most talented team in the state, the No. 2 Gators displayed their arsenal in a 2-0 victory against No. 6 Mesa Red Mountain on Wednesday night at Arizona State.
It means Xavier and No. 4 Phoenix Desert Vista will meet for the state championship on Friday night at ASU.
The celebration of playing one more game was quick, as Gator players immediately went over to see a fallen teammate. Senior Molly Quigley suffered a broken leg late in the second half and had to be taken to the hospital, but was able to hang around and watch the final minutes before being driven away.
By then, the Gators played as though they were unfazed. They’d been this far a few times before in recent years, and are looking for their first title since 2002 with a couple painful semifinal losses since.
“You just don’t know,” Xavier coach Barb Chura said. “To me, everyone is a 16-seed. ... It’s a small version of March Madness. It’s not always the best team who wins. We know that from past experiences.”
Following an early Red Mountain rush, Samantha Cummings got Xavier on the board 12 minutes into the match off a direct kick. From about 25 yards out, she booted the ball high enough to get over the Lions’ defensive wall — goalie Delaney Riley made a leaping attempt to save it — but the ball glanced off her fingertips in the air and went in.
The clincher came with under two minutes to play in the first half. Katherine Kelly scored on an easy kick following a Xavier throw-in and a couple headers which sent the ball across the goal, and Kelly tapped it into the corner.
Red Mountain had more chances but couldn’t become the first team in this tournament to score on Xavier’s defense.
“You have to earn everything you get against a team like that,” Red Mountain coach Andy Barber said. “...They ran into a defense no one has been able to score on.”
The Mountain Lions struggled in the early part of the season, both with consistency and injuries. They kept being involved with ties, which was aggravating at the time, but perhaps helpful here down the stretch.
Red Mountain trailed 2-0 to start this state tournament against Scottsdale Desert Mountain, but came back to win in overtime. That was followed by another overtime win to reach this point.
To that end, Barber credited his nine seniors for “not mailing it in, no one quit,” whether through December’s rough stretch, the opening-round comeback or Wednesday night’s early deficit.
The Lions’ Megan Striedel was victimized by Xavier goalie Tayler Renshaw in the first four minutes in front. An ensuing corner kick led to a clear shot in front for Red Mountain, but a Gator blocked it back outside the goalie box.
Striedel got the short end of the straw again early in the second half, when her shot from 20 yards out hit the bottom of the crossbar. With the ball sitting a few feet from the goal line, Alyssa Freeman tried a bicycle kick for the corner, but the ball skirted wide right.