GILBERT -- Backed all season by the best freshmen class in school history, Northland Prep Academy's trip to the 2A Conference state championship match provided another opportunity to show just how impactful they have been.
Scoring in the 23rd minute, freshman Ellie Karren gave the Spartans the early lead before putting home another two goals in the final nine minutes as No. 1 Northland Prep topped the No. 3 Chino Valley Cougars 3-1 to win its first state championship in girls soccer on Saturday.
“I’m very happy us as freshmen helped this team, that we just newly came onto to, to get their state championship,” Karren said, with the senior class leaving the school with some state hardware. “But it wasn’t just the freshmen, it was the entire team that put in the effort all season and all year that took to get this championship.”
Falling to Blue Ridge in the state championship match three years ago, Northland Prep’s seniors wrapped up their high school careers vindicated by rolling off an undefeated 21-0 season while outscoring opponents 130-10.
“It feels amazing, it feels like my entire career has built up to this,” said senior Delaney Page. “And it is kind of fun to say we didn’t quite make it freshman year, but we made it senior year.”
With three victories against Chino Valley earlier this season, 2-1, 6-1 and 3-0, Northland Prep surged forward early on at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert, with Emma Blair running the offense from the right corner of the Spartans offensive half.
After shots by Brianna Hovis and Mia Blair came close, Karren took a shot from straight and sent the ball to the left corner of the goal past Chino Valley’s keeper. Breaking away from the defense just two minutes later, Karren nearly scored again but Chino Valley’s Kacey Matthews elevated to her right to make the save.
From then on, neither side scored for the remainder of the half as the pressure kept on against each side’s defense. With the Cougars on the attack, Page, Emma Heitkamp and Eleni Papas constantly cleared the ball out of bounds allowing the rest of the Spartans to retreat to their defensive half as the first half came to an end.
“When we came in, our coach just told us anything that’s loose, you kick it out. You get it out immediately,” Page said. “That was our mentality the whole game; we try to possess as much as possible and play to feet, but it is a lot of pressure. The whole season we have always been told, 'Let’s get a zero, let’s get a zero on the board.'”
The pressure stepped up for Northland Prep less than two minutes into the second half, as Chino Valley struck for their lone score on a loose ball in the box.
Setting up for a free kick nearly 50 yards out, Chino Valley put the ball right on goalkeeper Payten Schmidt. With the ball bouncing off Schmidt, Ashley McGuffey put in the Cougars’ first goal from the middle of the box.
“The last two against Chino, they have played really good,” said Spartans co-head coach Keith Hovis, who considered Chino Valley the second-best team in the conference all season. “It was really awesome, we know every time we play teams that are good, they are going to get five chances and they scored on their one chance. It was a great free kick and everything else, and got good rebound.”
Adding to the trouble, Schmidt left the match for a few minutes as her back tightened up after the play. Senior Lauren James entered the match in goal in the meantime, with Chino Valley kept off the board.
“She stepped up as a senior and said, 'I got this.' That’s awesome on her,” said co-head coach Michael Blair. “She’s been hurt throughout the season in little spots here and there, but she came in and did exactly what the team needed.”
While the Spartans allowed the goal, the Cougars failed to attempt a corner kick during the match, and Schmidt kept Chino Valley off the board after returning with roughly 33 minutes left and finished with seven saves.
As the end of regulation approached and the potential of an overtime period picked up, each side’s attack began to become more hectic.
“We haven’t been down the whole season, and we talked to them before the game and said Chino is a team that we can be down to and we weren't down to them but we were level,” Keith Hovis said. “They kept their heads really well. When they played simple passes like they have all year, we scored. We had lots of opportunities, too, that we just missed out on.”
Keeping the ball on the ground as Heitkamp worked her way up the right side, the senior found Mia Blair who moved the ball to Karren for the go-ahead goal with 8:29 left on the clock. While Karren recorded the hat trick, Anna White, Brianna Hovis and Mia Blair each came away with an assist.
“It was just really relieving, because I feel like we all got to calm down a little bit,” Karren said of the goal. “Because when we don’t play our game, we are all hectic. And so for that ball to go in, we just kind of knew it’s OK and we can calm down.”
Northland Prep kept the pressure on Chino Valley for the remainder of the match, with the ball in the Cougars’ defensive half for the final eight minutes of the match. Karren iced the match with her third and final goal with just 1:45 left in the match, shooting just in front of the keeper after Northland Prep’s offense penetrated into the box with its passing game.
“It sounds crazy, but we played better when we were tired. We actually settled down and played the ball on the ground to each other,” said Michael Blair. “That last goal, we connected five or six passes, switched it out, and Ellie was right there to call for it and put it away. That’s how we play when we are playing well. It’s hot, they are a great team, Chino Valley, and we had to earn this, and we definitely did.”
While the five seniors, Page, Heitkamp, James, White and Brianna Hovis, leaving with a state title, Northland Prep returns most of its roster including a freshmen class of eight.
“I’m just ready to build the soccer program at NPA, continue trying our best and trying to this every year if possible,” Karren said.