The dream season is over.
With temperatures inside Ivan Head Stadium dipping into the low 40s for Tuesday’s opening round of the Class 5A girls soccer state tournament, the swirling wind, chilly conditions and rarefied 7,000-foot air seemed the perfect elixir for Santa Fe High to get a win against visiting Las Cruces.
Behind a first-half goal by the Lady Bulldawgs’ Leah Tapia, 12th-seeded Las Cruces made off with a stunning 1-0 upset of No. 5 Santa Fe to advance to Saturday’s state quarterfinals at Hobbs.
“Not the weather or the altitude were a factor for us, because you prepare for things like this by practicing hard on the field and preparing for it mentally,” said Las Cruces coach Bobby Bertoldo.
Santa Fe High rode into the game with a 19-1 record, outscoring its opponents 143-5 in what was the most successful regular season in school history. The Demons won District 5-5A and were the last undefeated team in the large-school classification heading into the final two weeks of the season.
“There’s a lot to be proud of and a lot to be excited about because you look at what we have, what we can build upon and what we’ve got coming back. This is a tough loss to take, but I think everyone around here knows this is just the start,” said Santa Fe High head coach Justin Najaka. “Of course, we wanted more, and if you saw our postgame talk, there were a few tears in there. We’re upset, but it doesn’t take away from what we did.”
The Demons never mounted much of an attack in the first half, getting just one shot before the break. Las Cruces scored its lone goal late in the first half, when Tapia raced down the left side with a defender on her shoulder. As she raced in, Demons goalkeeper Molly Wissman came forward to make a play on the ball. That’s when Tapia got just enough on it to roll the ball into the open net.
It wasn’t until the final 10 minutes of regulation that the Santa Fe High offense sprang to life. Facing a Las Cruces defense that settled back and packed the far end of the pitch, the Demons had three quality shots that nearly found the back of the net.
The best, and most painful, was a chest-high line drive shot from Allison Segura-Maze from the left flank. The ball sliced ever so slightly and bounced hard off the post on what would have been the game-tying goal with just a few seconds remaining. The final whistle blew before Las Cruces could put the ball back in play, securing the No. 12/No. 5 upset that Bertoldo said wasn’t an upset at all.
“When we saw the bracket, we looked up [Santa Fe High’s] schedule and saw they really hadn’t played that many bigger schools like us,” he said. “We knew this was a game we could win. We knew they’d have a hard time with us only because they weren’t used to this level of competition.”
Santa Fe High’s first nine games this season were against teams from 1A-3A or 4A. The NMAA selection committee clearly didn’t think much of the Demons’ district as just they and runner-up Albuquerque High were included in the 12-team field. Albuquerque High, the 11-seed, also lost in Tuesday’s opening round.
Najaka said Bertoldo’s remark wasn’t unfounded. To take the next step in the evolution of Santa Fe High girls soccer, the Demons will need to beef up the nondistrict slate in 2022.
“Yeah, that’s one of the things we’ll work on but, again, we played and won most of the games we had out there,” he said. “We did everything we needed to do to get here, and we’re happy about that.”
Hired just weeks before the season opener, Najaka said he’ll take full advantage of the next nine months and get his players into a bona fide offseason training regimen that includes weight training and plenty of time on the pitch, be it with their club teams or in the limited time they have together while in school.
What he saw in the waning moments of Tuesday’s game gives him hope that the fight and determination are certainly there.
“This is the best team we’ve played and we definitely had some great chances there at the end,” Najaka said. “The girls understood what we had to do and we almost got it. They never gave up even though we’ve never really been in this position before.”
Las Cruces spent most of its time marking the Demons’ big three of Segura-Maze, Jazzi Gonzalez and Asha Smelser. The trip combined for 92 goals this season but were never able to mount a sustained attack until the very end of regulation.
The Demons lose just four seniors — Segura-Maze, Madelyn Kingston, Sonia Goujon and Breann Sanchez — and return most of the scoring and defense next season. As much as things are changing for the better for a program that, for years, was overlooked and forgotten about, the future is brighter than ever.
“That’s a good team they’re putting together,” Bertoldo said. “It’s not just the players they have, but the way they’re playing, the way they’re doing it. They’re tough.”