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Penalty kick elation sounds great — this time — to Centennial coach

SANTA ANA PUEBLO — Alex Reyes knows what a dramatic victory in penalty kicks sounds like — even if he can’t bear to watch.

Centennial High School’s veteran soccer coach enjoyed the joyous cries of his players Thursday after goalkeeper Rylee Thatcher’s diving stop in the eighth round of penalty kicks clinched a nail-biting 2-1 victory over Cibola in the Class 5A semifinals. Reyes was sitting in a folding chair along the sideline throughout the penalty kicks, staring at the ground.

“I haven’t watched them for years,” Reyes said, “and I still don’t. Too stressful. You’ll know from the cheers when somebody wins it. I’m glad our girls were the ones cheering today.”

The dramatic ending earned the Hawks a spot in today’s championship game against Volcano Vista. It’s Centennial’s first finals appearance and the first by any non-metro area team in a large-school girls championship since 2006.

It’s not a first for Reyes, who coached Las Cruces High for 21 seasons, won a pair of state championships and lost to La Cueva in that 2006 title match. Getting back to the ultimate stage with a relatively new program has proven challenging.

“It’s only eight years since our school came on board,” Reyes said, “and we’ve been in the mix most of that time. It’s all about the kids and my coaching staff because they’ve sacrificed a lot to build this program. Getting to this point is special.”

The Hawks (20-1-2) are riding high, having won 15 consecutive matches since a 1-1 draw at Carlsbad. Their only loss this season was a 2-0 setback at Rio Rancho in August.

Still, most of Reyes’ current players know about dealing with adversity. The Hawks came into last postseason undefeated, nationally ranked and sporting a No. 1 state-tournament seed. They were dumped 3-0 by No. 8 La Cueva in the quarterfinals.

“That was definitely tough,” senior midfielder Deanna Freeman said, “but we didn’t dwell on it very long. (Reyes) talked to us after the game and told us we had to learn from it and build a stronger mindset. We haven’t let things get to us this year.”

That determination was evident Thursday when Cibola’s Emily Aguilar scored an unlikely tying goal on a corner kick with barely a minute remaining in regulation. If the goal was deflating, the Hawks never let it show.

“(Thatcher) is a first-year starter,” Reyes said, “and for her to shake that off and make some big stops in OT and in PKs, that’s huge.”

Reyes, in his seventh season at Centennial, also believes last season’s disappointing finish has paid dividends in 2019.

“I think there’s a sense of maturity,” he said. “These players know not to take things for granted. I’ve been telling them all year we could get here and I told them just now that they deserve it. It takes a lot to get to a championship game. They’ve done the work.”

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