The Northland Prep Spartans boys soccer (4-6-1) hosted the undefeated and third-rated Chino Valley Cougars (7-0) Wednesday afternoon, falling 3-0 to the senior-laden team.
It was the second time the Spartans have been shut out by the Cougars this season, as they also lost 4-0 in Chino Valley on Sept. 13.
"Chino's a good team," Spartans coach Kalani Kuamoo said. "They're a lot better than they were last year. ... We're still so young, but it was good for us to see what a senior team looks like."
The Cougars appeared to be putting on a passing clinic in the first half of the game, which was played almost entirely in the Spartans' zone. But to the NPA defenders' credit, they limited the Cougars to just a handful of shots and only one goal before halftime.
In the second half, the Spartans became much more aggressive in their approach, and the strategy seemed to work.
"We definitely needed to put a body on them," Kuamoo said. "Instead of being pushed off the ball, we were stepping up and contesting them, and it got a little bit physical, but that's where the turning point worked for us."
The Spartans had two excellent chances to tie the game halfway through the second half. First, senior Linden Sommer placed a penalty kick from the right side 40 yards out directly in front of the goal, but it was cleared by a Cougars defender.
Then, junior Mak Kumasaka had a penalty kick from 30 yards out directly in front of the goal and nearly punched it in, but it was blocked by the Cougars' keeper.
Freshman Morgan Barta, who has replaced the injured Ian Kearsley in goal this season, kicked one point-blank shot away in the second half, but allowed a pair of late game goals that coach Kuamoo called "mental mistakes" on the defender.
"(Barta) stepped up today," Kuamoo said. "Experience for down the road is what we're looking for. Next year, maybe the nerves won't be so bad."
Against the Cougars, who could easily find themselves playing for a state championship this season, any mistake can be fatal to a team's chances of winning.
"We kind of knew what we were expecting, ... but anything's possible in this game," Kuamoo said. "We played a little bit defensive, and it didn't work out today."
Despite the loss, the Spartans are still in contention for the playoffs, placing No. 13 in the latest AIA power rankings.
However, all five of their remaining games, starting at Grand Canyon 1 p.m. Saturday, are on the road.