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Sandia girls took rocky road to state soccer tournament

There are six No. 2 seeds in the state soccer tournament. One could argue that none of them arrived at the postseason quite as circuitously as the Sandia High School girls.

The Matadors were at the center of a very public, and extremely odd coaching change three days before the start of the season. And while this might have sidetracked the chances of other teams, Sandia quickly adjusted on the fly, carrying a 14-4 record into the Class 5A quarterfinals at noon Wednesday against Eldorado at the complex on the Santa Ana Pueblo.

“This is, by far, one of the strongest teams, mentally, I’ve ever been around,” said Sandia coach Jay Sheraden, whose own story is almost as unusual as what his team endured the last two-plus months. “They’ve done more than I ever could have imagined or hoped for.”

Sheraden’s predecessor, Troy Wheeler, was fired on the Friday before the opener after getting into some legal trouble that saw him get arrested on campus several days before his firing. But Wheeler’s departure, and Sheraden’s promotion, were not a major deterrent for Sandia, the District 5-5A champion.

“I think at the beginning, it was kind of rough,” said Sandia’s stellar senior midfielder, University of Denver-bound Hannah Gallegos, who was a preseason All-American in one publication. “We started getting behind Jay, as the season progressed, we all got more confident in each other and that’s brought us to where we are now.”

Only No. 1 seed Centennial (19-0) carries a longer winning streak into this week than Sandia’s 11 in a row. The Matadors did drop three of their first five, all by 2-1 decisions to teams seeded among 5A’s top six this week: No. 4 Cibola, No. 5 Volcano Vista and No. 6 Albuquerque High, but that could hardly be blamed on the coaching change. Their other loss came to top-ranked — but eighth-seeded — La Cueva.

“(Brian) Weems, our AD, would tell us that at the end of the day, it’s just us on the field,” said junior defender Kaitlin Mack. “We were dependent on each other.”

And on Sheraden, who was an assistant coach before his unexpected job title change.

He was a military brat who played football in high school — not soccer. It wasn’t until he was 19, he said, that a buddy asked him to join an adult team. They needed extra bodies, Sheraden said.

“I’m a football guy,” said the 46-year-old Sheraden.

But he quickly immersed himself, becoming a learned student of the sport, and began coaching at the club level in 2002. He has coached at the high school level at Manzano and, for the last five years, at Sandia.

And he surely benefited in this way during the transition: The Matadors had not just experience in general, but experience together. Not to mention some dynamite playmakers.

Gallegos led Sandia with 24 goals, followed by Sydney Groth with 20 goals and Carena Harrison with 15. The Matadors, in fact, are the highest-scoring team among the quarterfinalists. Mack and senior Jessica Ganley anchor a dependable back line.

“I think we have amazing players,” said Gallegos, who was also looking at New Mexico, UCLA and Colorado. She will sign with Denver next week. “Our end goal is to win state and get that trophy.”

Sandia and Eldorado, despite being in such close proximity to one another, did not meet in the regular season.

“Eldorado is a well-rounded team,” Sheraden said. “They are fast at every position. We’re looking forward to a really good match.”

NOTES: All of the 5A girls quarterfinals are noon Wednesday. The semifinals are Thursday, and the championship game is 3 p.m. Friday. … Tickets are $15 for a day pass, or $10 general admission for adults and $5 for students, seniors and military.