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Since taking over as co-head coaches just before the 2017 season, Michael Blair and Keith Hovis have had high aspirations for the Northland Prep girls soccer team.

Two straight 2A Conference state titles later, the foundation for the Spartans program has been placed and the best team in fall soccer believes it will be even better next year.

The Spartans' three most productive players on offense are all set to return for another season after accounting for about 61.5 of the team’s points this season. Although replacing a trio of seniors that includes one of the Spartans' top defenders in Eleni Pappas and the team’s vocal leader Emma Blair will be difficult, Michael and Keith have built a young group that seamlessly slots players into new roles when needed.

Sophomore midfielder Kiarra Hovis was one of the best examples of that this season as she filled in for 2017 2A Conference Player of the Year Mia Blair, who sat out the majority of the year while recovering from a torn ACL.

Kiarra finished first on the team in assists with 32 -- which was Mia's role in 2017 -- and second in points scored at 72, showcasing her versatility.

Nationally, Kiarra finished second in assists while playing a different role than she did her freshman year when she played all around the field, causing havoc on defense and then crashing in on offense. She doubled her assist total from 2017 with her performance in 2018.

“Credit to her, she stepped up in the spot Mia left out and had a lot of assists, so she drew a lot of attention,” Michael said. “With Mia and others back, they will draw attention and allow her to get free for higher-quality shots.”

Mia returned the second-to-last week of the regular season in a road win against Round Valley and the difference she made on the team was seen immediately. Mia’s impact wasn’t noticeable in the box score, but after the game Keith and Michael saw how she changed the offense.

In the 3-1 win over Chino Valley in the state championships, Mia -- despite not being fully comfortable and ready to play -- only had one shot and didn’t make a mark on the stat sheet; however, the difference she made on the offense compared to the early-season shutout loss to Chino Valley was apparent.

“You saw even at 80 percent the change to our team with her out there,” Michael said. “With our confidence level, the difference was obvious. She didn’t have a lot of stats in the final, but she gives us 20 to 30 yards on the field and lets the offense just get up.”

For most of 2018 the Spartans played short-handed. They spent time without junior defender Ginger Blodgett -- the Spartans' star of the title game who shut down Chino Valley’s best player -- and other important pieces on defense, forcing inexperienced players to contribute early.

“We’re the hardest critics because we’ve known the kids for a long time, but we had so many kids that stepped up,” Keith said. “I mean, that was a lot of important players to lose, and we had kids that shared time and stepped up defensively and offensively.”

GOING FORWARD

With the deepest roster in the conference and most of their top players expected to return, the Spartans are primed to continue their dominance of the 2A.

Michael is confident in the group of sophomores he has coached since they were 7-year-old kids, and he knows they have the chance to continue to improve as they enter their upperclassmen years.

Between the team’s top two goal scorers in Ellie Karren and Sydney Sventek, one of the conference’s top keepers in Payten Schmidt, Mia, Kiarra and multiple freshmen that produced at high levels, the Spartans are equipped to sustain their play for the future.

With so much young talent, therein lies both good and bad for the Spartans. The talent is there on the field, but the coaches understand that their best players are young and are learning how to be leaders.

Because Northland Prep does not have a junior varsity team, it forces the freshmen and sophomores to figure out high-level soccer right out of the gate, and Keith and Michael said it took a bit longer this year than 2017. But, eventually, the youth came through when needed as the Spartans played their best soccer at the end of the season.

“It’s the hardest thing here but also the easiest -- our freshmen and sophomores are our main players,” Keith said. “For some of them it hurts them because we don’t have a JV team and we want to give them more time, but they feel the pressure of the hard games.”

”It makes them ready to play,” he added.

Michael said he has bigger aspirations for his players than just high school success. He believes his players can compete with anyone and play at the next level.

“I want these girls to have shots at the next level and potentially after that,” he said. “They really are that good, so we’re looking to lift the lid of some of these college coaches so they can see what kind of players we develop and get through there and start a pipeline into some of these bigger colleges.”

The Spartans ended the season on an eight-game winning streak and are 43-1 in the past 44 regular season and tournament matches the past two years.

Michael was clear about his team's future: “We’re only getting stronger next year.”

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Lance Hartzler can be reached at 556-2251 or at lhartzler@azdailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @lance_hartz.

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