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The Alacranes have made leaps and bounds

Pavement and a small patch of grass is where the Tierra Encantada boys soccer got its start.

With no nearby pitch, coach Kurtis Montoya and his Alacranes had to make do.

Tierra Encantada’s Fernando Granados, center, battles Monte del Sol’s Gabriel Alarcon, left, and Jorge Morales, right, during a Tuesday match that Monte del Sol won 2-1. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“We didn’t even have a field,” Montoya said. “When we moved to our new school at this location, we were practicing on pavement or practiced on a very small patch of grass that’s right next to the parking lot.”

The team now has access to a practice field at Salvador Perez Park, but because it is in use most afternoons, the Alacranes again have had to make do.

“We didn’t have anything to practice on so it was hard,” said senior Danny Pichardo. “It was hard for us to practice. Now at last we have a practice field, but we have to get up at 5 a.m. to get to practice at 6 in the morning so we can improve. It was hard for us, we didn’t have the chance to play or practice on the field so we were used to pavement but now we’re used to grass and all that stuff. We’re working on grass so we get to get better.”

Indeed, Tierra – a bilingual, project-based, college-prep charter school with about 300 total students – is getting quite a bit better.

Tierra Encantada’s head coach Kurtis Montoya talks to his players during halftime of a Tuesday game against Monte del Sol. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Two years ago, the Alacranes made the state tournament before losing in the first round. Last season, they won their first eight games, eventually earned a No. 5 seed and won two games in the state tournament before losing 2-0 to blue-blooded top seed and eventual champ Sandia. And this season, Tierra went 10-1 (the only loss coming on a forfeit to Hatch Valley) before dropping a tough 2-0 match to District 1-1A/3A rival Monte del Sol on Tuesday.

The current season also includes the program’s first truly signature win, a 2-1 overtime victory over St. Michael’s.

“Going into St. Mike’s, we knew if we go play our soccer, we’re good,” Montoya said. “That’s what we ended up seeing and ended up sneaking out with a win.”

The team also played well against the Monte del Sol’s Dragons, but didn’t make the big plays when needed.

“We didn’t capitalize on a lot of opportunities that we had early on,” he said. “It’s frustrating from a coaching perspective. But we’re competing with them and they’re the top team in our district so I’m very appreciative of that.”

The whole growth of the program since it moved out of the club phase and into varsity level four years ago has been fairly meteoric, but Montoya said he saw the potential there when he took over at that point.

“Talent-wise it was absolutely here,” he said. “The one thing they lacked was the discipline. That was the main thing I tried to create. They were used to indoor soccer, which is a lot of iso (isolation) stuff. Quick-paced. Outdoors, it’s a slower pace and way more passing. That was something I had to break out of them, I guess.”

The results, however, have been telling, Pichardo said.

“To be honest, we weren’t that good,” he said of that first varsity season. “We were barely starting to understand our roles in soccer. One thing that I can say, our team wasn’t good enough. That year was good for us because we didn’t know how to play soccer that well. Now that we’re where we are, it has been a proved that we’ve changed a lot throughout the years and it’s all based on team work.”

Learning to work and play together has been the real key to the team’s success, Pichardo said.

“Basically, we support each other and we’re working all together and supporting and pushing each other and being on the same page,” he said.

And it’s fun to look back on how far the team has come, Pichardo said.

“It was a fun experience, being a small school and going to play the big schools in New Mexico,” he said. “We learned that we can have it, it’s not impossible. We can do everything. When we started we didn’t have balls to practice. We didn’t even have a ball. We’ve worked hard for this and it’s something to remember.”