West Valley Preps
Willow Canyon fans were a bit uneasy during a pair of state 5A play-in games on the western Surprise campus Thursday night.
However they went home happy as the school’s girls soccer and girls basketball team surged in the final 10 minutes to secure victories that extended their seasons.
These teams are now into the main tournament draw and ready to hit the road.
Girls soccer will learn its Saturday first round opponent on Friday afternoon. Thanks to road upsets by Maricopa and Avondale Agua Fria, the Wildcats will jump from the No. 16 seed to No. 14.
Willow Canyon entered the night ranked No. 14 and will remain there.
Here are recaps of each game:
In its play-in game against No. 17 Sunrise Mountain, the Wildcats broke a 1-1 deadlock and had to hang on several times in the final five minutes.
A sleepy second half sprung to life in the final ten minutes of play, as Mustangs junior Anna Ramirez made a run down the left wing with Willow Canyon defenders trailing.
However, senior goalkeeper Akela Patterson charged out and cut down Ramirez’s angle, forcing her shot just wide.
Three minutes later Sunrise Mountain committed a handball just outside the area. No. 16 Willow Canyon called on senior midfielder Megan Tracey to take the free kick from a spot just beyond the penalty arc.
She struck a beauty, clearing the wall and diving into the lower left corner of the goal. The Wildcats now led 2-1 with 6:30 remaining.
“I thought we dominated the first half but couldn’t put the ball in the net. It was a little more in the second half,” Willow Canyon coach Kendra Melbye said. “She’s got a great dead ball hit. She’s done it for us several times and she fit again today. Meghan’s got a little bit more finesse as we get closer to the net.”
Predictably, the Mustangs assaulted the Wildcats goal in the final five minutes. The visitors had four golden chances for an equalizer.
Ramirez’s corner kick with 2:53 left deflected and sophomore Justyne Underwood produced a dangerous shot which Patterson blocked. Then Patterson deflected junior Lauren Hill’s free kick from just outside the box.
The goalkeeper had been the player of the match to this point, Melbye said, and nearly saw it slip through her fingers in the final minute.
Mustangs senior Desirae Gutierrez struck a corner that Patterson leaped to grab only to drop the ball just to the right of the goal moth. Luckily for the Wildcats, no Mustang was close enough to tap it in and a defender cleared.
In the final 10 seconds, Patterson was letting a desperate long Sunrise Mountain pass trickle to her to run out time before picking it up. Again she fumbled the ball and this time sprinting Mustang Rylee Swier crashed into her with five seconds left.
Patterson was able to secure the ball just before time expired.
“You want to finish the game strong and those things make your heart jump,” Melbye said.
Sunrise Mountain fans and coaches stood in disbelief for minutes that a foul, which would have led to a penalty kick attempt at the end of the game, was not called.
“They said it was a 50/50 ball. It was the same think he gave our goalie a yellow card for in the first half. That’s what I was frustrated by,” Andersen said. “Take that emotional moment out of it and it was a good night. I’m proud of our team.”
Andersen is referring to the first goal of the night, set up by a collision between a Willow Canyon attacker and junior goalkeeper Sienna Colby.
Freshman forward Paige Garcia calmly slotted the ensuing penalty kick with 17:12 left in the first half for a 1-0 lead.
Sunrise Mountain tied just before half time with its own spot kick. Underwood drew a penalty in the final 30 seconds and Gutierrez converted the penalty kick with 14 seconds left.
Andersen said the Mustangs proved they could hang in their first 5A season in a decade. They beat #7 Gilbert Higley and pushed #2 Queen Creek Casteel to overtime
“I think it was a little bit of an adjustment at first. We showed we could go toe to toe with top teams,” Andersen said. “The problem was showing up consistently. That’s the difference from 4A to 5A. In 4A we had games we could take off and in 5A level you don’t have that.”
Sydney Jaeger and Gutierrez are the only two graduating seniors, so in a way these Mustangs are just getting started.
“The group that will be seniors, I think there’s eight of them. They’ve been in games like this for three years now and that will be invaluable,” Andersen said.
Meanwhile Willow Canyon advanced to the first round after a tough home game, like last season.
The difference is, they did it without transcendent striker Allison “Rose” Veloz, who scored 39 goals last year. She in playing in the US national developmental soccer program this year.
“Great individual players all over the place had to learn to play like a team. Losing Rose hurt, there’s no doubt, But instead of replaying on one big-time player, everyone has to mean something,”
Later Thursday night, the Wildcats girls basketball team had to push past its roadblock, and visiting #19 seed Nogales did not make it easy.
The Apaches arrived in Surprise shooting, nailing a couple three-point shots to take a quick 10-2 lead. At one point, the visitors were up 10 on #14 Willow Canyon.
Nogales (12-14, 10-6 regular season) led the 5A play-in game 28-22 at the half.
Wildcats coach Brandon Scholtz said in a game like this between teams that know virtually nothing about each other, adjustments are the key.
His team made some adjustments and was able to take away some of the open three looks. Willow Canyon (15-7, 11-7) limited Nogales to 12 second-half points in a 49-40.
According to all available records, it is Willow Canyon’s first girls basketball postseason victory of any kind. After play-in losses the last two years, the win is more of a milestone for these girls.
“It feels so good. Freshman year we were awful. Sophomore year we went to the first round but got blown out by Ironwood. Last year we went to the first round in Marana and felt like we shouldn’t have lost to them,” senior forward Ali Denny said. “It’s a great feeling.”
In the second half the home team stayed calm and its constant push for a transition game began to wear the Apaches out.
Nogales was tied at 30 when coach Yahaira Sanchez decided to take the air out of the ball, running a delay offense to preserve her players’ energy.
“From there it was about playing our style. We knew we could run them and wear them out. At halftime nobody was down, nobody was frustrated,” Schlotz said. “They called time out and put in (a stall) after the time out. My guess is that was an adjustment they made to our pace. And they were able to kill some time off. It’s just so hard to run an offense out of that because you’re not in that rhythm anymore.”
Senior Emma Hanson had just completed a three-point play to tie the game. Senior forward Kaylee Kriwer’s long two put the Wildcats up 32-30.
Apaches senior center Czarina Mada drew a foul on a half-court shot at the buzzer and made all three free throws for a 33-32 lead after three quarters.
Nogales would score only one point in the next five minutes of play.
“If we control the tempo, we pretty much control the game,” Hanson said.
Kriwer drove for a layup, was fouled and sank the free throw to regain a 35-33 lead. Hanson hit a three, one of many huge plays for a senior that usually defers to Denny and Kriwer offensively.
Hanson said she doesn’t shoot threes that much but was ‘feeling it tonight.’
“Emma had a huge game tonight. It was awesome. I’m so proud of her. It was hard to talk postgame in the locker room without breaking up was hard. They’ve worked so hard for this and they don’t deserve to be done,” Schlotz said.
Nogales missed its next shot, which set in motion the play of the game.
Denny grabbed the rebound and threw a two-hand outlet pass to the streaking Hansen. She caught it near the baseline and without moving, tossed the ball to the cutting Kriwer for a layup and 40-33 lead.
“That was amazing. I love those plays. Those are my favorite type of plays because you get everyone involved. Emma has great court awareness,” Denny said.
Willow Canyon cruised from there. After a tough first half, Denny scored eight of the team’s final nine points to finish with 10.
Kriwer led the Wildcats with 11 and Hanson added 9. Junior Dominique Acosta led Nogales with 12.
The Wildcats’ path to this night began in this play-in game round two years ago when, as Schlotz put it, ‘Ironwood cleaned our clock,’ in a 67-38 play-in romp.
Willow Canyon started so well this year – 10-0 and ranked #1 in the initial 5A power points – that they may have been guilty of looking beyond their original goal of a postseason win. The team finished with losses in seven of its final 12 games.
“One of the regrets I have this year – and I haven’t told the girls this but I will – is that halfway through the season we changed our goal. Our goal this season was to host a playoff game and win it. We started off on such a streak and I think we got a little starry-eyed. When you adjust your focus, you have some tumultuous times and we did.”
Now a weight is off the Wildcats’ shoulders.
They likely will play at #3 Phoenix Horizon at 7 p.m. Feb. 12. And they will play free of burdens.
“This was almost like a stress reliever. There was so much pressure building up to it. We’re home and have the advantage,” Kriwer said. “Whenever this ends, we’re done. We have to play like every single game is our last game.”