No. 3-Ranked Wolves Prevail in Opening Round of AIA Division IV Tournament
By Daniel Dullum
GOODYEAR – No. 3-seed Estrella Foothills maintained its undefeated status on Jan. 30, taking advantage of Apache Junction miscues to defeat the No. 14 Lady Prospectors 4-1 in the opening round of the 4A girls soccer playoffs.
“Playing a good team like this, they exploited a couple of mistakes we made in the first half,” AJ Coach Norm Hoefer said. “(Estrella Foothills) is a good team, and when you make a couple of little mistakes, they’re going to capitalize.”
“They won off of our errors, but it wasn’t because we didn’t play hard or gave up, it was just simple errors,” AJ forward Emily Rutkowski said. “I’ve grown up with this whole team and played with these seniors since I was in seventh grade. I’ve always looked up to them.
“I’m going to miss them a ton, but we’ve never accomplished this much before and I’m so proud of everyone. Since I’ve been in this program, we’ve made milestones and milestones. We made the playoffs two years ago, and won a playoff game this year (against Flagstaff Coconino) and never done that before.”
While it was a tough end to a successful season, the Lady Prospectors seniors remained proud of what the program accomplished.
Defender Alysa Rippee: “It’s been amazing, this is the best senior year ever. We wouldn’t have been here four years ago, and to see how far this team has grown is amazing.”
Goalkeeper Jessica Sigler: “It was an honor and a pleasure to play on this team. I’m so proud of them and I look forward to their future.”
Forward Trinity Izbicki: “I’m so proud of our team. Like Alysa said, four years ago we wouldn’t be here and I’m really honored to be a part of this. I’m super proud we made to the first round because AJ has never been to the first round of the playoffs. I’m really happy we got to do it.”
Defender Janelle Digos: “This really made my senior year really great for me. They’re a really great team and I’m proud that I’ve been on this team forever.”
Forward Regan Rose: “We really left our hearts out there. Three years ago when I started, I would have never thought that we’d be here, and I never thought that we’d be playing in a playoff game like this.
“Everybody says ‘we’re just AJ,’ but we’re way more than that. We have the heart for it. We really worked hard for this and really wanted it, so I’m really glad we got here. Even with a loss, it’s still a good way to go out.”
Midfielder Mattie McMinn: “I’m just excited for the rest of my team. Our freshmen are phenomenal soccer players and the program is only going up from here. This year nine of us were playing year-round. Next year, I hope there’s going to be even more.
“I see the program getting better and better over the next few years.”
The Wolves (15-0) led 3-0 at halftime. Alexis Hayes scored the first goal in the 20th minute, and Gabbie Hayes tallied in the 32nd and 36th minutes.
“We definitely struggled in the first half,” Wolves Coach Rosie Gonzalez said. “We couldn’t wake up. We were nervous and felt the pressure. They knew it was a state game and (AJ) was here for a reason.
“Finally, after the first goal, we started getting a little more comfortable,” she continued.
“In the second half, I felt we were a little more comfortable with the score and started slowing down again. Then when they (AJ) scored, it definitely shook up the girls, because in soccer, you can come back quick.”
Mattie McMinn put the Lady Prospectors on the board in the 9th minute of the second half, scoring on a free kick to cut Estrella Foothills’ lead to 3-1.
“That’s like my signature shot, so I had to make that goal in my last game,” McMinn said. “We put up a good fight against a No. 3-seed. I thought we were going to have an upset, but we fell a little short.”
“I told the girls at halftime that if we cleaned up a few things, we can get back into this,” Hoefer said. “I felt we could get (Estrella Foothills) out of position and get one.”
Unfortunately for AJHS, Katy Cafaro – the team’s leading scorer – left the game with a shoulder injury, and with five minutes remaining, Anita Moreno extended the Wolves’ lead for good at 4-1.
“After that goal, I think our girls woke up again,” Gonzalez said.
Another factor in the Wolves’ victory was dominating ball possession through most of the second half.
“That’s huge,” Hoefer said. “You can’t score if they have the ball. That’s what we did against some of our opponents this year.”
“We try to talk a lot, try to communicate,” Gonzalez said. “When the girls start ‘dying down,’ we have to get them excited and pumped up again. We try to do that as coaches and the girls do it for themselves as well.”
Senior goalkeeper Jessica Sigler made 12 saves for AJ, which finished its season 17-5-1.
“I’m not complaining about this game, we played amazing,” Rutkowski said. “They got us off the errors, but it’s stuff we can clean up so easily. Next year is going to be phenomenal.
“I’m glad I got to learn with them, and next year, I’m a senior and get to go off of that. I’m excited for what’s in store for next season because we’re getting better and better.”
In its 4A Southwest Region schedule, the Wolves outscored their opponents 23-1, and were scored on by only three teams overall prior to the playoffs.
“Getting a goal against this team, which only gave up seven all season, that’s huge,” Hoefer said. “Tomorrow, Estrella is going to be sore after this. They’re going to know they played AJ.”