The Northland Prep Spartans girls soccer team is in a slightly different spot heading into this season’s 2A Conference state tournament than it was in last year.
Last season the Spartans carried an undefeated streak into the playoffs en route to the state title. This year, while still dominant against the conference, they dropped one game in a 1-0 loss at home to rival and this year’s top seed Chino Valley, eventually leading to a second-place finish for the Spartans in the Central Region and a No. 3 seed for the tourney.
The loss, which was the Spartans' first in nearly a year and a half and snapped a 35-win streak, happened in late September and even now is still fresh in the players’ minds.
“We’re excited,” Spartans senior midfielder Emma Blair said Tuesday. “I mean, we lost 1-0 and that was because we lost the mental game and therefore we lost the physical game. So that was ridiculous and now we’re ready to fight back. I get ahead of myself, so I’m already on Saturday and my dad is like, ‘We have to take care of Friday first,’ and I know he is right.”
The Spartans knocked off Snowflake 7-1 in a play-in match on Tuesday and need just one win to reach the finals for the second straight year and two wins for back-to-back championships.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Standing in between the Spartans and the rematch with the Chino Valley Cougars, who need to beat No. 4-seeded Show Low, is No. 2-seeded Round Valley.
The Spartans have beat the Elks three times this season, twice in regular-season matches 6-2 and 10-2 and once in a midseason tourney 6-3, and they know what they need to do to keep that trend going.
Emma said the Spartans defense needs to key on Samantha Madrid, the Cougars' leader in goals and total points with 30 and 66 respectively.
“We’re ready. We’re zoned-in and we’re peaking at the right time,” Emma said Tuesday. “ ... Our defense is starting to hold tight -- they had a couple slip-ups tonight but they are starting to hold together.”
Spartans co-head coach Michael Blair said the defense as a whole needs to be more compact. He noticed during the win over Snowflake that the team allowed chances that can come back and hurt the Spartans if they continue to allow them.
“It’s about Friday with Round Valley,” Michael said Tuesday after the Spartans' 7-1 win. “ ... We’ve got to be smart and our defense needs to tighten down a bit more. We’re still making some silly mistakes and have let a lot of goals that will hurt us in the end.”
With last year’s 2A player of the year Mia Blair having three games under her belt after returning from an ACL injury in the final week of the regular season, and other Spartans who have battled nagging injuries now healthy, Northland Prep appears to be at full strength for nearly the first time this season.
Spartans co-head coach Keith Hovis is confident in how the Spartans match up with Round Valley, adding that the players have started to find their rhythm.
“I think we’re fine,” Hovis said. “We match up really well with Round Valley -- we played them three times this year and we’ve won every time. We know they’ve had a whole week to work on it, they didn’t have to play today, but we’re peaking at the right time."
AWARE OF WEAKNESSES
After the Spartans' loss to Chino Valley, the coaches said the team didn’t get enough quality chances at the goal and rushed some shots when they were open, and that has been a noticeable change in the Spartans offense since that loss.
Playing Chino Valley also is a major step up in competition compared to the rest of the conference, and forces the Spartans to play more controlled on touches in the box.
The Spartans, winners of 41 of their past 42 games dating back to the start of the 2017 season, are 5-1 in matches against Chino Valley, outscoring the Cougars 17-5 and never allowing the Cougars to score more than one goal in the six matches.
In the same span, the Spartans are 5-0 against Round Valley with a goal differential of 31-10 -- the last Round Valley win was a 2-1 victory in the 2016 2A semifinals.
Emma, looking ahead to a potential rematch on Saturday, said the Spartans need to change how they funnel the excitement if they face Chino Valley again.
“On Saturday, that is really when we need to let the adrenaline take over and let the excitement fuel us rather than hinder us like it did last time,” Emma said.
First kick in the semifinals is set for 3 p.m. on Friday at Campo Verde High School in Mesa. If the Spartans win, they advance to the finals on Saturday at 4 p.m., also at Campo Verde.