Last season, a penalty-kick shootout against the Salpointe Catholic Lancers ended Flagstaff girls soccer's season in the 4A Conference state semifinals.
This year, the Eagles get a chance to redeem their loss -- this time, with the 4A state title on the line.
Saturday, the No. 1-ranked Eagles (12-0) will play the No. 2-ranked Lancers (11-0-1), the defending 4A champions.
Even though the match is emotional for the Eagles, they are still going into the game focused on their opponent rather than what happened in 2017.
Eagles head coach Holly Jones said the team had more apprehension going into the semifinals against Catalina Foothills.
“I don’t think they believed that they could be in the championship game. So I think preparing for the semifinals, the hardest part was getting them to believe that 'You are going to win the semifinals. You are going to be in the championship game and you have got to let last year go,'” Jones said. “I think we are over that hurdle. And for the championship game, yes, you’ve played this team last year and they beat you. We are a different team and we’re going to go out and get the win.”
In Jones’ first year back after nearly 10 years away during which she spent time as an assistant for the Northern Arizona University soccer program and coached many of Flagstaff United Soccer Club’s age groups, she has continued the Eagles' success following the departure of former head coach Jenna Samora.
Even with the change of head coach, the team has embraced Jones due to her connection with many of the players from club soccer.
“It’s been really good, because I’ve known her for a very long time, and so have a lot of our team,” said junior Maddie Shafer. “It’s good to have a familiar face with Jenna leaving last year since she was our coach for a long time.”
The Eagles take their high-scoring offense against a team that has only given up three goals in the regular season and the postseason. Flagstaff has a 116-6 goal differential while Salpointe has a 70-3 differential.
The two share only two common opponents: Prescott and Catalina Foothills. Flagstaff beat both, while Salpointe beat Prescott but lost once in a tournament and tied in the regular season with Catalina.
Shafer, the Eagles' leading goal scorer at 28 this season, said Salpointe will be Flagstaff's toughest challenge this season, because she believes the Eagles haven’t been tested with the same caliber of competition that Salpointe has.
“It’s definitely more of a challenge because we haven’t played the high competition they have every single game,” Shafer said. “We’ve had high competition games, but not as much as them, so it’s important we come out fast and not slow. We can play slow against other teams, but we need to be intense against them.”
Shafer said a major factor is Flagstaff needs to put pressure on Salpointe quickly and use its speed to its advantage.
She remembers last season’s loss to Salpointe and wants this year to be different.
“We just really want to exploit their defense because they are the ones who knocked us out last year, so we want to get that win back,” Shafer said.
Despite losing a key contributor to last season’s defense in Claire Cashmore, the team has still been able to keep a high-level defense. This season the Eagles have shut out 10 teams, including the postseason.
“We’ve done awesome, Claire was a big loss to us, but we’ve really stepped it up and are doing better than last year,” said goalkeeper Lyza Bosselmann.
On the defensive end, senior Morgan Hodges said the key is communication. Hodges said if the defense can communicate properly and keep Salpointe from getting scoring opportunities by stepping up to the Salpointe attack quicker, then it will be up to the offense to handle the rest.
“They’re definitely going to be our hardest competition and it’s going to be an emotional game, but as long as we can keep them out of our goal, then that’s all the defense can really do. From there it’s on the offense to get us through with the win,” Hodges said.
From Hodges' perspective on the backline, she said the offense needs to play to its strengths by using their speed and what they have worked on throughout the season.
“We need to utilize what we have and what our strengths are,” Hodges said. “Especially because we have a lot of speed up top, and we’ve definitely worked a lot on crosses this year, so we need to execute those.”
As the teams appear to match up evenly, Jones said the game will be a battle between two great, evenly-matched squads.
“It’s going to be a very tight game," Jones said. "They’re a great team and I think when you put two great teams together, it's whoever can play the full 80 minutes and whoever is going to make the fewest mistakes.”
First kick is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Williams Field High School in Gilbert.