LAS VEGAS — In his 12 years of coach of Arbor View’s girls soccer team, coach Jay Howard has celebrated a state championship 50 percent of his tenure.
The Aggies won their fifth consecutive title – and sixth overall – with Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Palo Verde, a team that just one week earlier ended Arbor View’s four-year reign as Sunset Region champions in Southern Nevada.
“No matter how many times you’ve been here, it’s still special,” Howard said.
Palo Verde opened the scoring in the title game, when Macee Barlow converted on a penalty kick in the 34th minute to give the Panthers a 1-0 lead. The Aggies dominated the tempo and possession of the first half, and held a 2-to-1 shot advantage, but went into halftime trailing.
The lead didn’t last long, though, as Hannah Ferrara served Deja Erickson a momentum-changing assist roughly 30 seconds into the second half, after dribbling past Palo Verde defender Katelyn Fann on the right wing, sent a perfect pass into the box, where Erickson headed the ball to the left post.
“In my head I knew I could beat that girl, but it was just a concept of getting the ball and getting it done,” said Ferrara, a junior. “As soon as I got the ball I knew I was going for it. As soon as I got past her, I knew it was going to be a good one. After we scored I knew the momentum was ours.”
In the 54th minute, Allyssa Larkin blasted a 25-yard kick to the upper left post with the go-ahead goal, and two minutes later it was Sierra Vicente adding a goal off an assist from Melanie Ara to push Arbor View’s lead to 3-1. Ferrara’s added a goal in the 67th minute to put the game out of reach, as the celebration began early with family, fans, alumni, administration and even players chanting: “5 Peat!”
But of all the talent, all the teams, all the seasons, Howard admitted this one has been the toughest on his players.
“Every year is a new year, that’s what we tell the girls; but after we lost the regional championship those kids had a really tough two days,” Howard said.
SOCIAL MEDIA MELTDOWN
After Palo Verde, a regular-season rival of the Aggies in virtually every sport, pulled off a 3-2 upset in the regional final, many took to Twitter with snarky – some hateful – tweets, including the notorious Jordan-crying meme with several Arbor View players donning Michael Jordan’s tearful face.
The tweet escalated when the tweet was quoted by a member of the Arbor View’s boys soccer team, saying: “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen.”
Understandably, the entire high school population in Southern Nevada wants to see the Aggies’ championship streak come to an end, but the players did everything possibly to keep their minds right two days after their first loss in more than a year, especially when kids at their own school were razzing them about the loss.
“We blocked out all the comments on Twitter and social media, and we just came out and played our game,” senior Madi Boyd said.
Junior defender Karissa Martinez took to Twitter after the team’s state’s championship with her own tweet, saying: “It’s a big motivation when everyone around you: your “friends,” other schools, your OWN school, wanna see you fail… 5 PEAT.”
But it wasn’t just days leading up to a state tournament play-in game the Aggies had to win if they wanted to defend their title, the trash talk began in a season preview, in which Bishop Gorman coach Doug Borgel was quoted in saying his team had “a three-headed monster that is going to be difficult for teams to handle.”
That isn’t necessarily a bad statement to make when you have confidence in a team that includes one of the state’s top players. But it was the follow-up statement that inspired the Aggies: “I think we’re the only team with three players at that kind of level. The other teams have two or one. We’ve got three.”
But this season Arbor View returned four of the best offensive attackers in the city, in Erickson, Ferrara, Vicente and Larkin – all of whom had at least one state championship ring entering the 2016 campaign, and incidentally, all of whom scored Arbor View’s four goals in the title game.
“Social media was brutal to them, at school was rough to them, and the way they responded to them – it’s really special,” Howard said. “I’m really proud of them.”
As the Aggies’ season trickled along, there were clear signs this might be the hardest state title to defend, whether it was injuries, fatigue, having a target, or the mental anguish they all endured.
Arbor View lost two key players to season-ending injuries – Taylor Hill and Poppy Cartledge – while others – like Erickson, the team’s leading scorer – battled nagging injuries throughout the season. In the regional championship loss, Erickson and fellow-starters Jolie Meyers and Neally Peters, had to be helped from the field, as Palo Verde’s physical style had taken a toll.
In fact, knowing he had a roster splattered with players who were dealing with injuries through the final game, Howard told one of his assistant coaches two hours prior to the game: “I know our mindset is right, and I know we have the heart for it, I don’t know if we’re physically going to be able to do this today.”
Senior Melanie Ara could barely walk straight or bend over with a strained back. At one point during the championship game, Ara sneezed and the anguish in her face from the pain she felt was excruciating. The fleet-footed midfielder said none of that mattered, though.
“You would have had to bring me off on a stretcher, there was nothing that was going to keep me from playing,” Ara said.
Vicente also had a sore back and was battling a fever after being sick all night and hours before heading to the field. Vicente’s mother said she told her daughter it’s been a great season but if she had to watch the state championship game, she had to do what was best for her health. To which the diminutive scoring threat replied: “I’m playing, even if that means I throw up on the field. I am not missing this game.”
Meanwhile, Meyers also returned to the field, but now with a brace on her knee, while several others were simply dinged up with various injuries that had taken a toll.
“We had to come together as a team (and) during the playoffs we became a family,” senior Madison Boyd said. “A family doesn’t break. And that’s what we did, we held together and stayed strong together.”
Boyd, a defender, became the only player in program history to start on four state-championship winning teams. Ara will also receive her fourth ring, as she was brought up from junior varsity in her freshman season, in time for the playoffs. Both are captains, and both shine in their own unique way. They’ll depart the team with fellow seniors Samantha Blanchard and Jessa Sosa, both of whom played vital roles for Arbor View, Blanchard starting at defender and Sosa as a key reserve.
But it’s been Boyd that has held things together as one of the team captains, by instilling confidence with her mere presence on the field.
“Madi has been a starter since Day 1, and the thing with Madi is she is the best player in the state – absolutely,” Howard said. “Because she is so calm, she doesn’t get recognized as much because she is not flashy. She wins every ball, they don’t get around her, when she wins it’s a calm pass or a good pass. She’s one of the top one or two players I’ve ever been around.”
When junior goalie Haylee Niemann set the state record earlier this season, for most career shutouts, she credited Boyd and Blanchard as key reasons for her success. But Boyd stepped back and allowed her keeper to take the spotlight, as good leaders tend to do.
Howard said it’s more than her play on the field that made Boyd an integral part of keeping his team’s composure, it’s her relationships with the players off the field, and her approach in keeping the family intact.
Said Boyd: “This one means so much because it’s my senior year, it’s my last year, and I get to do it with all my friends and family and it just feels so much better than the others because I get to go out with bang. I feel blessed and honored to be a part of this team and family, because we are a family.”
Through it all, Arbor View’s infamous social media hashtag #AVIfYouBangin came full circle on Saturday, when players, parents, fans, little girls who idolize the Aggies and anyone else who was there to witness the feat, rushed the field at the final whistle.
“After the loss last week, we knew we had to come back stronger than we did before,” Ferrara said. “You have to mentally tell yourself you can do it again.”
And yet despite the win, it didn’t stop Twitter trolling once the game ended, as one of Palo Verde’s players tweeted: “wasn’t deserved at all.”
All evidence to the contrary, this was definitely a season Arbor View’s girls soccer program certainly earned its title, and deserved to win another state championship.
“It’s about the family,” Howard said.