Likely locking up the easiest road to the state final, the No. 1 Northland Prep Spartans recorded their seventh regular-season shutout as they handed the No. 3 Chino Valley Cougars a 3-0 defeat Wednesday at Sinagua Middle School.
Remaining perfect at 11-0 overall and 7-0 in region this season, the Spartans locked up the 2A Conference, Central Region title with the victory. With only the No. 11 Payson Longhorns remaining, a winless team with just three goals scored in nine regular-season matches, Northland Prep’s likely victory on Friday’s Senior Day would allow the Spartans to avoid the No. 3 Cougars or No. 2 Round Valley Elks until the state championship match.
With a 2-1 regular-season win a month ago at Chino Valley, followed by a 6-1 victory at a tournament four days later, Northland Prep swept its region nemesis in a physical battle on its home field.
“It was a great warmup for the state tournament,” said Spartans co-head coach Keith Hovis. “I think in the past we have shied away from contact, we were more of a possession team, but this year we like to play physical. We will do it if the other team is doing it, and back-and-forth. We like that, I think it's fun.”
After saying the team’s early goals have taken pressure off the Spartans in matches following Monday’s practice, senior Brianna Hovis took care of the job herself against the Cougars.
Following a throw-in deep in Chino Valley’s defensive third, Hovis took away a ball in the box and scored from the left side of the goal with a hard shot past the keeper. Coming less than nine minutes into the match, Hovis’ goal stood as the lone score for more than 60 minutes.
In the meantime, freshman goalkeeper Payten Schmidt kept the Cougars off the board with a handful of impressive saves. Diving to her left just two minutes after Hovis’ goal, Schmidt tipped away a sure goal on a shot from the right side of the box. While Chino Valley drew a corner kick on the attack, Northland Prep quickly cleared the ball away.
Ending up with more work than any keeper has seen this season, Schmidt thwarted another attack by Chino Valley as the first half came to a close. With a ball taking a hard bounce, Schmidt, who had seven saves, recovered and fell on the ball before it could come close to the line.
“I think that’s the most we have had; they had a lot of shots, they got in, but she stopped them all. That was kind of cool to watch,” said Keith Hovis. “In the first half, the save that she made down there, that was pretty awesome.”
Playing in front of Schmidt, Delaney Page and Eleni Papas each chased down attacks up the sideline and cut off the ball before any Cougar attacker could cross it into the box or drive the ball themselves.
Chino Valley (7-2-1) entered Wednesday’s match with at least one goal in its first nine regular-season matches, with its tie to Round Valley coming at 1-1 and its previous loss to Northland Prep by a score of 2-1.
“We have one keeper that’s hurt and we will play the senior keeper on Friday, but to know that we have Payten going forward in the playoffs is a great thing,” said Keith Hovis. “She was tested and she came through with flying colors.”
On their way to victory thanks to a defense keeping a clean sheet, the Spartans added a pair of insurance goals 40 seconds apart in the 70th minute.
After Ellie Karren and Rachel Ryan worked together to gain possession of the ball at midfield and drive forward, Mia Blair’s shot to the left post ended up in the hands of Chino Valley’s keeper. However, Blair regained possession less than a minute later and led Karren through the center of the defense with a pass to set up an easy goal.
With Anna White fighting for the ball on the ensuing kickoff, Papas found the ball at her feet nearly 40 yards from the goal on the left sideline. Chipping a shot immediately after gaining possession, Papas beat Chino Valley’s keeper with the ball floating over her head for the third goal.
Northland Prep’s final regular-season match against Payson will kick off at 3:45 p.m. Friday, with the state semifinals scheduled for Friday, Oct. 27, at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert.