Although it was more than 15 months ago that St. Pius last celebrated a girls state soccer championship, going back to back was pretty special.
As a matter of fact, said Sartans coach David Sullivan Jr., this 2-1 victory over second-seeded Hope Christian on Saturday for the 4A title at the University of New Mexico Soccer Complex may just stand alone among the other nine the program has won previously.
“To me, this year is special,” he said.
“I didn’t think it ever was going to happen. Once fall sports got canceled the first time, I was really, really, really depressed. So to have an opportunity, kudos to my athletic director and the NMAA for continuing to fight for it. This year is going to be special forever because it was in the spring. The only spring state (soccer) championship ever.”
It was the third time the teams met this season, with top-seeded St. Pius (10-0-2) finishing with a 2-0-1 advantage over the Huskies (10-2-1).
“Credit to them,” said Hope coach Amy Fankam. “They did a lot of things well and I think we did, too. A couple of little mistakes, but there is no team I’d rather coach than the team I’m coaching right now. …All the credit goes to Pius. They did a great job. They had a great season. You want to lose to a great team — we lost to a great team.”
The Huskies, however, had no intentions of going away without a bark and a bite.
They nearly drew first blood in the game’s first minute following a quick sequence of passes from Addison Anaya to Mia Spencer to Savannah Sanchez, who blasted a one-timer from about 18 yards out. But Sartans goalkeeper Alicia Barela made a diving punch save to knock it off the crossbar and out of danger.
“It definitely builds my confidence just to get in there and make that first save,” she said. “It means it’s ready to go and it’s go time now.”
It’s the type of play her teammates can appreciate, said defender Nikki Taibbi.
“It really motivates us, and it’s really a big deal that she does that,” Taibbi said. “And she’s fantastic at it and it gets us going, like we really gotta go.”
The Sartans got their first chance to score in the 13th minute on an Emma Donlin breakaway when she headed it to herself going forward, but ‘keeper Dylan Rees made the stop with her legs.
The Huskies got a break when two St. Pius defender failed to clear the ball in the 22nd minute from the top of the penalty area and it fell to Hannah Gutierrez. She found the corner, putting the Sartans in an unusual position.
“This group has only been losing for a total of 47 minutes the whole year,” Sullivan said. “There was a lot of time left, 57 minutes and I told them just relax.”
And just like that, the equalizer came in the 31st minute.
After a melee in front of the Huskies’ goal, the ball bounced free and Lauren Salas was able to clean up the garbage goal with an uncontested tap-in.
“We knew we had each other’s back and we knew if we kept working, it was coming,” Barela said. “If we never quit, we knew that eventually we would come out on top.”
The Sartans got that chance in the 55th minute after a midfield foul about 40 yards out. Taibbi lofted a pinpoint shot that went just above Rees’ outstretched arms and just under the crossbar.
“I was really hoping it was going to go up and drop in, which it did,” Taibbi said. “I was really worried it was going to hit the crossbar, but it didn’t. I just leaned back a little farther and focused, and it went in.”
No. 1 ST. PIUS 2,
No. 2 HOPE CHRISTIAN 1
Hope Christian 1 0 — 1
St. Pius 1 1 — 2
Scoring: HC, 22nd, Hannah Gutierrez (unassisted). SP, 31st, Lauren Salas (unassisted); SP, 55th, Nicole Taibbi (unassisted).
Shots on goal: HC 6; SP 5. Corner kicks: HC 0; SP 5. Saves: HC, Dylan Rees 3; SP, Alicia Barela 5.
Records: SP 10-0-2; HC 10-2-1.