As the light-blue activities bus left San Luis High School at about 7:30 a.m. Saturday, coach Ian McDougall and the 24 players settled into their seats.
The trip to Gilbert Campo Verde High School, site of the Division II boys state championship soccer game, would take three hours and 15 minutes. San Luis had been down this long road before; in the postseason it had traveled to Tucson, Nogales and then, for the state semifinal game, to Gilbert Williams Field.
“This is the shortest ride we’ve had,” McDougall said.
As the bus rumbled through Maricopa and into the East Valley, the players thought about the 80 minutes that lie ahead of them and the opportunity that awaited them.
San Luis, located in the southwest corner of the state on the U.S.-Mexico border, has had one of the worst athletic programs in the state. The school dropped football last year after 56 consecutive losses. The boys basketball team hasn’t won a game since 2013. The girls soccer team went 1-10-1 this past season, the girls basketball and volleyball teams a combined 8-28.
Game recap: Queen Creek captures 1st boys state soccer title
With 83 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch San Luis, part of the Yuma Union High School District, is a case study in how socio-economics often dictate a school’s athletic success.
“They don’t have any money,” McDougall said.
But they do have futbol, a heritage in the Hispanic community. Boys that grow up with a soccer ball on their foot care little about haves and have-nots. Give them a ball and a dirt field and they can play with anyone.
“Our kids, with the exception of one or two, don’t play on traveling club teams,” McDougall said. “We don’t have private coaches or private trainers. We play with $20 Walmart balls in the park and try to get a game together.”
San Luis has made the playoffs 12 straight years. It reached the state finals in 2006 and the state semifinals last year. The one thing it hasn’t been able to do is the one thing no San Luis athletic program has done since the school opened in 2002: Win a state championship.
“I think (winning) would prove to everyone in Arizona that this town is capable of at least winning something,” senior midfielder Marlon Atondo told the Yuma Sun.
If San Luis was going to break through, this would be the year. It had 13 seniors, six of whom had started since their freshman season. Its No. 11 seed in the state tournament was more a reflection of its strength of schedule than its underdog status. San Luis had lost only one game, that to Phoenix South Mountain after the Christmas break when seven of its starters were out because they were spending time with their families. San Luis had tied Division I powerhouse Chandler Hamilton, 2-2, in an early December contest.
This wasn’t just the final game of a season, either. San Luis would be saying goodbye to its coach. McDougall was quitting because his wife is seven months pregnant with their second daughter and he wants to spend more time with his family.
The game began a half-hour late, but it took only a few minutes for San Luis to show off its skill. It possessed the ball in Queen Creek’s end, using short, pinpoint passes to set up scoring chances. The ball never found the back of the net, however, and it was 1-0 Queen Creek at halftime thanks to a goal by Benji Delgadillo.
“Keep your heads up,” McDougall yelled at his players as they walked off the field at halftime.
San Luis kept attacking, seniors Cesar Moreno and Andres Elizalde getting the ball in dangerous position in front of Queen Creek’s net. But they couldn’t solve keeper Felix Amenda and soon it was 2-0. Then, with 15 minutes left, Queen Creek’s Jacob Dominguez scored to make it 3-0.
As they waited for the ball to be put in play, San Luis’ players stood still, hands on their hips, their heads down. Their dream, they knew, was over. It would be the first time all year they failed to score.
All that remained was to glumly accept the runner-up trophy and take the long ride back home.
“We just wanted to make our city proud,” Atondo said.
Photos: High school boys soccer state tournament 2015
Sandra Day O’Connor’s Musa Morris, left, is greeted by teammates after he scored against Chandler in their Division I boys soccer championship Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015 in Gilbert, Ariz.