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In 1st Round, Taos Hosts, SF Prep on Road

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With three northern New Mexico teams – No. 3 Los Alamos in Class 4A, and No. 3 St. Michael’s and No. 4 Robertson in A-3A – earning opening-round byes, the final stretch of the season begins Saturday for the remaining girls squads.

Matches in first-round action are played at host sites. Game times vary.

No. 11 Desert Academy (11-9) at No. 6 Taos (14-3), 1 p.m.

Despite playing varsity since the eighth grade, Zoie Hensley’s time with the Taos Tigers has been short. During that span, however, the Taos junior has made the most of it by always ranking among A-3A’s top scorers, culminating in Taos’ trip to the state title game last season – the first for any public school in the classification.

But just like her freshmen year in 2010, when she missed most of it due to a back injury, this season has been a struggle for Hensley to even get on the pitch. After scoring five goals on opening day against Capital, Hensley went down – this time with a muscle strain in her back caused by a malformed growth plate in her spine. Her coach and father, Michael Hensley, said Zoie would eventually grow out of it – but, perhaps, not fast enough to save her season.

“Zoie maybe played three-quarters of the first game and maybe two or three minutes of another game and hasn’t played since. That has affected us offensively,” he said. “We’d have games where we’ve dominated , but we’ve had trouble finishing. And lot of that has to do with how young we are.”

Still, there they are.

Despite Zoie’s absence – as well as an injury to sophomore defender Dawn Penso, who returned to action this past week from a knee injury – the Tigers still ended up finishing second to the Cardinals in District 1. Now, led in scoring by junior Angelica Pacheco with 30 goals and 10 assists, and freshman phenom Lucia Costanza, who has 17 goals and 24 assists, Taos is looking to make another run to the state title game.

And the first stop for the Tigers will be playing host to the Wildcats, who finished fourth in District 2. It’s the first time Desert Academy has qualified for the girls state tourney and, much like Taos, the Wildcats field a young squad.

“I have a lot of kids with either a little soccer experience or haven’t played before, so at the start of the season, we really had to go back to basic things in practice – simple touches, passing, trapping,” Desert Academy coach Niki Wheeler said. “But the girls really responded well, and I think that had a lot to do with how we finished the (regular) season.”

Desert Academy earned three district wins, including a victory over No. 10 Portales.

Sophomore Franny O’Byrne, who started out in the midfield, was moved to the forward position and is now tied for second on the team in goals with junior Daisy Ottaviano with seven. Senior Hannah Lochner leads the squad with eight goals.

NOTE: If the Tigers advance past Saturday, Michael Hensley said Zoie has about a 10 percent chance of playing against St. Michael’s.

“She still has her club season and other stuff going on, so I don’t really want to rush her back,” he said. “She does want to play, but being the nervous parent, I have to be on the cautious side.”

No. 9 Santa Fe Prep (8-12) at No. 8 Rehoboth (8-12), 2 p.m.

The Blue Griffins started the season traveling roughly three hours to the Four Corners region only to lose, 3-2, in shootout to Rehoboth.

Now fast forward a little more than two months later, and despite the less-than ideal outcome, Santa Fe Prep coach Aaron Kauffman wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. “Playing the same team again and at the same site with a young team will certainly be helpful,” he said.

And that’s exactly the situation the Blue Griffins find themselves in. While other road-bound teams in this weekend’s state soccer tournament have little time to get accustomed to playing an unfamiliar team on an unfamiliar field, SFP’s foray into Saturday’s opening-round game is a return trip to visit the Lynx.

“We’ve come a long way since then,” Kauffman said. “We had young players playing on varsity for the first time, and now all those players have embraced their roles.”

Since then, sophomore Alexis Mundt has returned from injury, and senior Madeline Fort moved from a wing to striker, flourishing in her new role by leading the squad with 11 goals. And despite the Blue Griffins having dropped five of their final six matches, they placed second in District 2, behind the Lady Horsemen.

The winner of the contest will face No. 1 Hope Christian.

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