SANTA ANA PUEBLO – This ain’t Hawaii.
And for the New Mexico Rush ’96 team competing in the U18 girls portion of this week’s US Youth Soccer Far West Regional Championships, that’s probably a good thing.
While the Rush went 0-2-1 before being eliminated after group play of the U17 portion of the 2013 regional tournament in Honolulu, scoring only one goal in the process, this year has been an entirely different story.
The Rush ripped through group play this week with a perfect 3-0 record to earn all nine possible points and advance to Friday’s quarterfinals. The team capped its perfect group play showing with a 2-0 win over Blast ’96 Red out of Colorado on Wednesday afternoon at the New Mexico Soccer Tournament Complex near Bernalillo.
Angelica Pacheco, a recent Taos High graduate who has committed to play at Denver University next year, scored in the 4th minute and it wasn’t long after that teammate Claire Lynch, a recent Volcano Vista graduate who will play for the University of New Mexico next year, added another goal in the 12th minute.
“I think because we’ve been playing together longer, we know each other so well now,” said forward Zoie Hensley, a Taos graduate who has committed to play at Tennessee Tech next year. “Everyone knows how each other plays.”
And as for the team’s chances now that it moves on to the win-or-go-home (or for the New Mexico teams, stay home) portion of the regionals?
“I really think we can win this. I do,” Hensley said.
Lynch, whose four goals in group play were tied for second most in the U18 girls division, agrees.
“I think it’s just the focus,” Lynch said. “Either with us being at home (this week in Albuquerque) with fewer distractions, or because last year was in Hawaii and everyone was wanting to go to the beach or all the other things we could do in Hawaii. We were probably more focused on a vacation than we should have been.”
The core of this Rush team has been playing together for three years. That was when top players from several clubs within the Rush organization at that age group were placed together, according to head coach Justin Sells, the former All-American and all-time goals leader at UNM.
“They show up to work, and they’ve been coachable,” Sells said. “I’ve been hard on them, but they’ve improved. I think they take the game a whole lot more serious now. I think a lot of them, a year and a half ago or maybe a year ago, made a decision that they wanted to try to play soccer in college, and they started taking the game more serious, the preparation.”
Now, 13 of the 19 girls listed on the team’s roster on USYouthSoccer.org have either already signed or given verbal commitments to play soccer in college, and that doesn’t include Brianna Garcia of Cleveland High who will play at CSU-Pueblo in college but is out this spring with a torn ACL.
The first year this roster was together, it lost in the U16 semifinals of the state tournament. Last year, it won state, but did not advance past group play in Hawaii.
The final chapter for this year’s team is still being written.
“I feel we’re more prepared for the level of play this year,” said Lynch. “As long as we play our game and stay focused, then we can make it to Sunday’s (championship) game and see what happens from there.”