Mark Cardenas knew he’d need to take a yellow card to keep the No. 5 Douglas Bulldogs off the scoreboard.
With five minutes remaining in the first half, amid an onslaught of attacks by the victors, the No. 4 Flagstaff Eagles found themselves with only their goalkeeper left to defend a breakaway while leading 1-0. Running out of the goal area, Cardenas made contact with the Douglas attacker as the shot sailed off to the right.
Douglas failed to capitalize on a resulting corner kick, finishing the first half scoreless as Flagstaff survived the consistent assault. A second-half goal for the Eagles gave them the cushion they needed to withstand a goal by the Bulldogs in the 78th minute, sending the home team to the 4A Conference state semifinals with a 2-1 victory Tuesday afternoon.
“Words can’t express how happy these guys are and I’m just so proud of them,” Eagles head coach Mike Jenkins said. “They deserve it, they have been working extremely hard. You need a little bit of lucky, or ugliness I should say. That wasn't the prettiest game we have played, but the result is we won 2-1 and that's the bottom line.”
Unlike Saturday’s first-round game against Canyon Del Oro, where Flagstaff fell behind 1-0 before putting in two second-half goals, the Eagles struck early against the Bulldogs.
Alex Grieder slipped a ball through the Douglas defense from the left side of the field, connecting with Marco Avitia, who sent the ball to the far right post and over the goal line.
The goal stood as one of Flagstaff’s few first-half chances as Douglas controlled the final 20 minutes before halftime. Beginning with a free kick near the 35-yard line, requiring a punch by Cardenas to clear it away, the Bulldogs challenged the Eagles’ backline until the break.
“We just had to survive, it was desperation defending. We came out on top and did our job,” Jenkins said.
Cardenas came away with three saves on shot attempts before coming out of the game temporarily with his yellow card. Bryan Dean, Aidan Yanka, Greysen Shawler-Founts, Guillermo Soto and Wes Galland all helped clear out attacks during a 10-minute stretch.
With Douglas on its breakaway in the 35th minute, Cardenas made his move out of the box with Connor Caslin sent into the game for the last five minutes of the half.
“It’s like you are on an island,” Cardenas said. “You have to come in with full force or you don’t come out at all. He was going to beat me over the top, so I decided to take the foul and get the yellow card.”
Caslin immediately found himself under the same pressure Cardenas faced. Forced to dive to his right to stop an attack, Caslin’s grip on the ball loosened and the Douglas attack flicked the ball toward the middle from the ground.
Waiting at the goalline in the middle of the goal, Dean found the ball at his feet and cleared it away with 3:40 before the half. Caslin dove on another ball two minutes later, sliding to stop the ball before halftime finally gave Flagstaff a reprieve.
“That was absolutely fantastic,” Jenkins said of Dean’s play at the line. “Bryan has done that for us all season long. He never gives up until the ball is in the back of the net. The backline was definitely tested today.”
With Flagstaff last reaching the state semifinals in 2011 according to Jenkins, and the current Eagles seniors playing in just one state playoff match before this season, the Eagles head coach said the nervousness showed at times on Tuesday.
Jenkins said assistant coach Jose Soto helped bring the team together at halftime, settling down a group who became frustrated with one another after failing to push the ball past midfield late in the first half.
“It was very tough, we got frustrated with each other toward the end,” Avitia said. “They were pinning us back there, and we couldn't get out and do anything. It worked for them and it was very stressful for us. Luckily we didn’t get scored on from that.”
Cardenas re-entered to start the second half, remaining busy on the backend of Flagstaff’s defense.
While Flagstaff found more opportunities in the opening 25 minutes of the second half, the Eagles' first consistent possession came with Grieder sending a shot just wide of the left goal post after Soto, Samuel Lytle and Emmnauel De Niz each put solid touches on the ball.
About three minutes later, Grieder cleared a ball near his own goalline with Avitia sending it ahead to a breaking Shawler-Founts. By just about a foot, Flagstaff’s junior ended up offside to spoil a possible goal.
However, Shawler-Founts cashed in his next opportunity just three minutes later as he followed up a shot attempt by Grieder with a goal just a few feet from the line at the right post.
“It was actually really relieving. Knowing I messed up the first time, in the back of my head I said I'm just going to redo this and win for the team,” Shawler-Founts said. “I got the chance and I finished. I’m not going to miss that, there’s no way.”
With under two minutes remaining in the match, Douglas earned an indirect kick around 40 yards out. As the ball sailed into the box Cardenas jumped up to tip it away, but it brushed off him and landed in the net. After a discussion between the officials, the goal was ruled good based on the touch, cutting Flagstaff’s lead to 2-1.
Douglas kept pressuring as time ticked away, but Flagstaff’s kicks out the right sideline and clearances by Avitia and Hayden Lucas clinched the win. Entering the match with an 8-1-2 record, Douglas scored one goal or less just two other times during the regular season.
“It shows how good our defense can be at times under pressure and that way we are ready for anything, in my opinion,” Shawler-Founts said. “When it comes down to it, we will get the job done.”
Flagstaff now faces the conference’s No. 1 seed, Salpointe Catholic, at 11 a.m. Saturday at Williams Field High School in Gilbert. The Lancers beat the Amphitheater Panthers 9-0 in Tuesday’s quarterfinal after a 6-0 first-round victory against the Deer Valley Skyhawks on Saturday.