Cinderella is alive and kicking in the high country of Arizona.
There is the possibility of a storybook ending to the Division IV high school soccer season, as surprising Payson High School takes on the king of the hill, Lakeside’s Blue Ridge High, in tonight’s semifinal match-up in the state tournament.
Blue Ridge, which has gone undefeated in 20 games this season, was undoubtedly expecting to meet either No. 2-ranked Desert Christian or No. 3 Northland Prep in tomorrow’s championship game. The two schools are playing in the other semifinal game.
But an unexpected bump in their smooth road to the title has emerged.
First, the Yellowjackets will have to dispose of little ol’ Payson, the No. 12 seed going into the playoffs. That’s right – No. 12.
(*Update… Alas, it was not to be. Blue Ridge moved on to the title game with a 3-1 win over Payson. Blue Ridge goals by Martin Skovsby, Martin Forsberg, and Salvador Ramirez. Konnor Smith had a busy night in net, posting eight saves for the Yellowjackets. And then Blue Ridge won its third straight state title by defeating Northland Prep, 3-0.)
The Longhorns have earned the right to be playing in tonight’s semis with the state’s best small-school soccer team by knocking off the No. 4 and No. 5 teams in the playoffs.
Payson beat No. 5 Snowflake High School in the first round, 1-0, when Bubba Nielson re-directed a corner kick into the net for the only score of the game. And then they took No. 4 Willcox High to overtime before Noe Vega scored that game’s only goal with a header in the final minute of overtime.
Blue Ridge got a bye in the first round and then beat Benson High School, 3-1, to get to the semis.
It has been a wild ride through the playoffs so far for Payson, but reality sets in tonight when the Horns attempt to break Blue Ridge’s 55-game winning streak that stretches back three years.
The Yellowjackets have outscored their opponents 118-7 so far this season. And their defense is so solid that all but five games have been shutouts. Benson is the only team to score more than once against Blue Ridge, losing 8-2 at the close of the first week of the season.
The Horns have tried to pull off the upset twice so far this season, losing to the Yellowjackets both times, 2-0 in a September game and 3-0 early last month.
So what kind of argument can be made for it being any different when the teams meet tonight at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert?
Payson’s coach, Chris Avakian, may have hit on the answer in an interview with Max Foster at the Payson Roundup newspaper.
“They are about due for a loss,” Avakian ponted out.
And that simple idea makes tonight’s game one to watch. It could turn out to be one for the ages.