The Flagstaff Eagles boys soccer team has one of those bad tastes in their mouths that only winning can remove.
Last season, Flagstaff limped into the postseason and lost in the 4A Conference's play-in round, 8-1, to a hosting Nogales team while battling injury.
Many of the Eagles who went through the disappointing conclusion a year ago have returned. They brought back with them the knowledge of what it takes to make a run for a state title.
And through the season, they've added a few more of the ingredients it takes to win postseason soccer matches. The list includes chemistry, experience, adversity, health and senior leadership.
“I felt like they got a ton of experience. We kind of had a lot of injuries toward the end of last year, and a lot of those young guys who are now upperclassmen, our juniors and seniors, they got a ton of experience in that play-in game and they realized all the hard work they need to do and how to prepare themselves for this season," Eagles head coach Mike Jenkins said, noting the intensity was there as early as tryouts. "And they did do that. They came together as a group wanting to make a run.”
Flagstaff went 11-1 overall for the regular season and finished with a 5-1 mark in the Grand Canyon Region. With the success came an opportunity to avoid the play-in round as the No. 4 seed and the possibility to host two home playoff games.
“Last year left a bad taste in their mouths for the remaining kids with what happened in Nogales, so having home-field advantage is extremely important,” Jenkins said.
The Eagles will host the No. 13-seeded Canyon Del Oro Dorados to open the state tournament, a team Flagstaff did not see in the regular season.
The Dorados just scraped by Lake Havasu in the play-in round, 4-3, on the road in overtime. It was their first win since Jan. 15, as the team finished the regular season at 6-4-2 overall.
While its upcoming opponent clambered through the end of the regular season, Flagstaff stayed rolling, especially thanks to avoiding the injury bug. The Eagles outscored their last four opponents by a combined score of 19-3, collecting wins during the stretch over region teams that also extended their seasons.
Five of the seven Grand Canyon Region clubs did well enough to make sure the regular season wasn't it for the year, and Flagstaff only fell to one of them -- region champion Prescott. Meanwhile, Mohave and Mingus Union recently lost in the play-in rounds, while Bradshaw Mountain advanced and Prescott earned the automatic bid as the conference's No. 6 seed.
Prescott got the best of Flagstaff, which was short a key senior in Marco Avitia. The senior was trying out for the LA Galaxy that day, and the Eagles lost 2-0.
When the AIA released its first set of power rankings, Flagstaff was at No. 1. The solid start to the season mixed with owning the top spot was a bit of a shock to the players, and they put pressure on themselves to live up to the expectations, Jenkins said. The Prescott loss took some weight off their shoulders, the head coach added.
Flagstaff spent some time in tournament games during breaks from the regular season, getting its fair share of adversity.
As soon as Avitia returned, the team clicked, and he recorded back-to-back-to-back hat tricks in victories over Mohave, Estrella Foothills and Mingus.
"The guys, they know each other, they have been playing with each other for a very long time, so there is a lot of chemistry with them already,” Jenkins said.
Saturday's game at FHS is set for 1 p.m., following the conclusion of the girls 11 a.m. game.