Top-seeded Xavier is the two-time defending champions in 5A Division I girls soccer, and on Wednesday night the Gators took another step towards defending their crown with a 3-1 win over No. 5 Desert Vista in the semifinals at Campo Verde High School.
Xavier will play Hamilton on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in the championship, also at Campo Verde. The Huskies won a nail-biter, 1-0, against Xavier in early January.
The match started slowly as neither team was able to get a good look at a shot. Both defenses stayed between the ball and the goal. The first real threat came with 23 minutes left in the first half when the Thunder's Nicole Adams launched a ball toward the top of the net, but Xavier goalkeeper Hannah Griffith made a fantastic save by leaping to catch the ball at its highest point, inches from the crossbar.
That was just the start of some great plays from the Gators. With 13:46 remaining in the first half, Emily Holzmeister's shot from about the 25-yard line went in for a 1-0 Gators 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 time and space to kick it into 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 clanged 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.”
With 11:07 left in the second half, 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 the Thunder.
“Our girls made smart decisions late and started listening to a lot of what we were telling them.” Chura said.
The Gators added the final goal with about two minutes left in the match as Walts scored on an assist from Sam O’Connor.
“Nikki Walts is a big time player," Chura said. "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.”
Desert Vista is no stranger to semifinals and championships, and coach Paul Manoogian expects to get back here again 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."