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Prep girls soccer: Chase for 5A state title is wide open

If there is a favorite in the metro area among Class 5A girls soccer teams, Gary Zink is still waiting for that team to reveal itself.

“I haven’t seen anybody that makes me go, ‘Wow,’ ” said Cibola High’s head coach. “Nobody that’s gonna blow everybody away.”

The 2018 season opens for a large majority of the metro area today and Tuesday at the Albuquerque Metro Championships at the APS Complex.

La Cueva was the Class 6A state champ a year ago, outlasting Cleveland in the final.

The Bears are always a logical place to start, as longtime coach Amber Ashcraft has six starters returning, led by senior midfielder Deja Sandoval. But Ashcraft was even-keeled as she contemplated what might be ahead for her team in the next 2½ months.

“There are some strong players,” she said, “but there are some key roles we lack because of graduation.”

Volcano Vista has three girls – defender Dalis Bruce, forward Natalie Bruciaga and midfielder Arianna Cisneros, all juniors – who have already verbally committed to the University of New Mexico, and the Hawks only lost two starters to graduation.

“I’m excited to see what they’ll do this year,” Volcano Vista coach Samantha Lucero said. “The only thing that will hold us back is ourselves.”

Cleveland has good experience coming back, but the Storm’s graduated seniors included nearly all its best players.

“What it leaves me with is an outstanding midfield, but questions in the center of the defense and how we’re gonna score goals,” Cleveland coach Greg Rusk said. “But I believe we’ll be a top-eight team by the time the state tournament rolls around. And if the team is firing on all cylinders, we can go all the way.”

Eldorado has a young group with only four seniors, but the Eagles hope to get in La Cueva’s way in District 2-5A.

“I’m very excited. We have a ton of potential,” Eldorado coach Andrew Wiese said.

Sandia, Albuquerque High and Rio Grande all are expecting playoff berths out of District 5-5A. The Matadors just changed head coaches, with Jay Sheraden taking over for the fired Troy Wheeler, who hadn’t even had his first game as a head coach yet.

But the Matadors feature arguably the state’s best player in preseason All-American Hannah Gallegos.

AHS coach Natasha Lee has eight starters returning from a team that won 15 games.

“With the amount of talent we have,” she said, “we’re gonna be a good contender for state.”

Rio Grande has won 12 games in each of the last two seasons but hasn’t earned a playoff berth.

CLASS 4A: Albuquerque Academy is a defending state champion and brings back a superlative talent in senior forward Eliza Mariner, who is nearing 100 goals for her Chargers career. But coach Peter Glidden has been forced to do some lineup juggling, the result of some knee injuries.

“We’re gonna be really competitive and find ways to win games, even with sort of a patchwork lineup,” he said.

St. Pius opened in Ohio last week with a pair of games, and the Sartans have a very tough early schedule that includes September matchups with Volcano Vista, Cleveland, Cibola, Sandia Prep and Academy. And over half of this team are freshmen and sophomores.

Hope Christian is a new member of the second-largest class, and Huskies coach Kristal Coker said, “we have a ton of confidence that we’ll do well.”

CLASS 1A/3A: Matt Westerlund takes over at Sandia Prep, last year’s 1A/4A state champion. He is a Sundevil alum, who has been serving as a boys assistant at Sandia Prep.

“Losing only three players from last year’s state championship team is invaluable for us,” he said. “It sets ourselves up for success this year.”

Westerlund expects the eventual state champ to emerge from his district, 2-1A/3A, which also includes Bosque School, Robertson and St. Michael’s. Bosque has eight starters returning from a 15-5-2 squad that lost to Sandia Prep in the state semifinals last November.

“I would be surprised if we’re not in the mix again,” Bobcats coach Jacob Cortez said. “I anticipate, barring any major injuries, us finishing in the top two, definitely.”