The best way to understand the uncertainty surrounding this week’s high school state soccer tournament is to understand that even the people that should know best don’t have a firm grasp on it, either.
“For me,” said David Sullivan, coach of Class 4A’s defending state champion and top-seeded girls team from St. Pius, “there are a lot of question marks. This is the year, I couldn’t even tell you who the darkhorse is.”
There are 20 games around New Mexico on Tuesday. Classes 5A and 4A are in the quarterfinal stage, as the playoff field for this spring season was reduced from 12 qualifiers to eight. It is scheduled to return to 12 in those classes in the fall. Class 1A-3A has just four teams this spring, with semifinal games Tuesday.
The number of overall qualifiers was 72 at the most recent state tournament, in November 2019. There are just 40 this week.
And, many familiar names are absent, like the La Cueva girls and St. Pius boys. Others, too, as the district champions (six in both 5A and 4A) had automatic bids, leaving only two at-large teams to be selected in those brackets.
“There are some pretty good teams that were left out,” longtime Sandia Prep boys soccer coach Tommy Smith said. “There’s some weirdness to it, but there’s been some weirdness to the whole thing.”
That also includes tweaking the format. State soccer usually is four rounds contested over nine days and two weekends, with the second week at one location. This year, it is three rounds max, over five days.
Moreover, the quarterfinals and the semifinals in the larger classes, and the semis in 1A-3A, are being hosted by the higher seeds.
The University of New Mexico, on Thursday (1A-3A) and Saturday (4A and 5A), is hosting the six state championship games.
The Class 5A girls bracket is headed by No. 1 Carlsbad, which plays host to 2019 state champ Volcano Vista on Tuesday. Volcano Vista is the No. 8 (and final) seed, and the Hawks were a district champion after edging out Cibola and La Cueva in that stacked league.
Veteran Rio Rancho girls coach Uwe Balzis’ thoughts on the 5A bracket reveal even more about the lack of clarity on these playoffs.
“I don’t think there’s a clear favorite,” Balzis said. His team, the No. 4 seed, is home on Tuesday night to fifth-seeded Piedra Vista. “If it’s anybody at all, I would say it’s Volcano Vista.”
The Albuquerque High girls are the 2 seed, and home against Farmington at 2:30 Tuesday afternoon in the first half of a Farmington-AHS doubleheader, with the fourth-seeded boys taking on the Scorpions at 4:15.
The defending state champion Bulldogs have been ravaged by New Mexico United’s Academy team, and AHS comes in short-handed in a big way as it begins a bid to repeat under outgoing coach Lucien Starzynski, who himself is about to embark on a full-time job with NMU.
Hobbs, the No. 1 seed and a state finalist in 2019, plays host to Centennial in the quarterfinals. Rio Grande’s boys, a state qualifier for the first time in 16 years, meets No. 2 La Cueva at 5:30 Tuesday afternoon at the APS Complex.
Lovington is 4A’s No. 1 boys seed, as defending champ Los Lunas didn’t make the field. The Wildcats will be chased by the likes of No. 3 Highland, No. 4 Hope Christian and No. 6 Albuquerque Academy. The Chargers and Hornets meet at 6:30 Tuesday night in an attractive quarterfinal showdown.
In 1A-3A boys, there will be a new state champ as St. Michael’s isn’t here. There was only one at-large team selected, Bosque School, which finished runner-up to Smith’s Sundevils in that district. Sandia Prep is home to Santa Fe Prep on Tuesday, while the Bobcats are in Roswell to face New Mexico Military Institute.
St. Pius’ girls are home on Tuesday afternoon to No. 8 seed Silver. Hope Christian, seeded second, is home to No. 7 Del Norte, and sixth-seeded Academy visits Aztec.
The Sandia Prep girls, the most recent state champ, are in Santa Fe on Tuesday to play top-seeded St. Michael’s. Bosque is the No. 2 seed.
One of the other overall questions looming over every class is this one: has any team, regardless of how many games it played, had enough time to generate serious momentum headed into the postseason?
“That’s a very good question,” Balzis said.
“I don’t think so.”
Said Smith, “It’s going to be really interesting to see what these teams who haven’t played a lot of games are like.”