The proverbial weight slid off Highland's girls soccer team and crashed into a hundred mythical pieces.
For seniors like Cassidy Ogden or Molly Celler, a third soccer state tournament semifinals was the charm. The controversial, heartbreaking ending against Xavier in 2010 melted away in a postgame celebratory mad dash onto the field following Highland's 3-1 comeback victory against the No. 1 Gators on Thursday at Campo Verde High School.
The third-seeded Hawks will meet No. 1 and defending-champion Hamilton for the Div. I state championship on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Campo Verde.
For coach John Berzins, it was an 0-fer. In three of the past five years, his teams made it this far, but most recently were 0-for-2 at Red Mountain and 0-for-2 at Highland until Thursday night's about-face.
"We've been such a good, close team, we couldn't not go," said Cellar after she sealed the deal with a blast into the upper corner of the net from 20 yards out with seven minutes left.
For her teammates, it was a belief they could bounce back from a rough first half against an elite Xavier program.
This semifinal script began the same way Highland's past struggles often did: A deficit.
The Gators took control of possession and hounded Highland's side of the field for the first 40 minutes. Ashley March made eight saves on the night, but had little chance to stop Nichole Walts' point-blank shot after she beat everyone into the goalie box off a throw-in and gave Xavier a 1-0 lead 10 minutes into the match. It was the third time Highland has trailed this season.
"We were a bit frantic," Berzins said.
That was about it for the Gators, and, at halftime, the Hawks vowed to get back to the fast, wide style of offense that's worked nearly flawlessly this season.
That often doesn't work against Xavier, but Jaden DeGracie's flip-style throw-ins led to Paige Morris' deflection to tie the match four minutes into the second half.
The baton was passed and the Hawks controlled the final 40 minutes. They took the lead for good when freshman Brianna Hatch knocked in a penalty kick after teammate Brena Jarvis was tackled in the goalie box with 20 minutes left.
It was Highland's first penalty kick of the season, and Celler ended any drama ten minutes later.
"I was trying to aim for people, hit someone's head of deflect," she said. "I hit the goal instead so that's even better."
The Gators won the 5A Division I title in 2010 and lost to Hamilton in last year's championship match, but the bulk of that team returned in 2011-2012, and will do so again next year with four seniors on the roster.
"We didn't do a lot of what we've done well all season," Xavier coach Barb Chura said. "I don't think we played as good as we can or have. They were much better than us down the stretch."
That, Berzins said, was a credit to the bench players, bench cheerleaders and a talented group which finally knocked down one wall.
"It's top-to-bottom," he said. "Ever kid was a huge part of this win."
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.