Gaona: Rio Rico surging with playoffs on horizon

2014-01-24T00:00:00Z Gaona: Rio Rico surging with playoffs on horizonDaniel Gaona Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

RIO RICO

Two years ago, the Rio Rico girls soccer team won just one game. The season before that, it went winless, essentially hitting rock bottom.

Now, however, the Hawks, in shambles not too long ago, aren’t just headed to the state tournament but they may even be able to host a game.

“I expected to have a winning season this year,” said captain Veronica Cruz, a sophomore forward with 26 goals and 15 assists. “But not a winning season like this.”

Rio Rico, ranked sixth in Division III and 9-1 in regular-season games, hosts Walden Grove on Wednesday night to end the regular season. A win there would be its seventh straight and might be just enough to put the Hawks in the top four and be one of the host sites for the opening round of the state tournament on Feb. 5.

Rio Rico was one of six teams to qualify for the Class 1A/2A/3A playoffs in 2005. It beat Goodyear Estrella Foothills and then lost 3-0 in the following round to Chandler Seton Catholic, the eventual state champion. From the end of that season until the time coach Daniel Rodriguez took over in 2011, the Hawks won just seven games.

“When I came on board,” Rodriguez said, “there was 14 girls trying out total for the entire program.”

Rodriguez worked with what he had. Rio Rico won one game his first season — the final one, coincidentally — then went 6-7 in regular-season games last year.

The Hawks started the season 0-3 this year but snapped the skid with a 3-1 win against Pusch Ridge Christian, which has since won nine in a row.

Rio Rico has lost three games since that match on Dec. 4. Rodriguez doesn’t blame those losses on ability. Instead, he said they were a factor of how the program has been talked down so much that it’s hard for some of the girls to believe they can win.

“That’s what we want them to learn,” Rodriguez said.

“Just because they’re from Rio Rico and it’s a small school, they don’t take a back seat to anybody. Especially when they play as a team.”

That feeling within the team strengthened last week, when Rio Rico went on the road and got a rare win over rival Nogales, 2-1. It was quite the accomplishment for a team starting three freshmen and four sophomores. Their youth means the Hawks may only be getting started.

“Let’s say we get far in state this year,” junior goalkeeper Jackie Giron said. “Then next year they’re going to expect more from us so we’re going to have to work even harder to keep that standard high.”

Sahuarita pitcher heading to Wrigley in August

Sahuarita junior pitcher Sati Santa Cruz accepted an invitation this week to play in the Under Armour All-America Game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The Aug. 16 game will be aired live on MLB Network.

The 6-foot-3-inch 225-pound right-hander struck out 77 batters last year and had a 2.66 ERA. He was one of three initial commits and is the second local player to be invited to the game. Sahuaro ace and slugger Alex Verdugo starred in it last year.

Kuhm taking over football program at Nogales

Kevin Kuhm, who guided Rio Rico to its first winning season and first trip to the state playoffs last season, has been hired as Nogales’ new football coach.

Kuhm replaces Vince Villanucci, who went 50-28 over seven seasons with the Apaches and took them to the Division III state semifinals two years ago.

Sterns among several locals committed to NAU

Sahuaro wide receiver Cole Sterns verbally committed to Northern Arizona on Tuesday night, just a couple days after Salpointe Catholic linebacker Jake Casteel and about a month after Mountain View linebacker Corbin Gouby pledged to the Lumberjacks. All three players were first-team All-Southern Arizona selections by the Star last season. Too bad the Lumberjacks don’t play at Arizona Stadium next season.

Cotton still shining but left off of watch list

Palo Verde grad Bryce Cotton of Providence plays an average of 39.4 minutes a game and is the second-leading scorer in the Big East with 20.3 points a game. It’s a shame Cotton wasn’t listed on the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 on Wednesday. In the week before the list was released, he scored 23 points in an 81-68 upset against No. 20 Creighton and hit the game-winner in a double-overtime thriller at St. John’s.

Contact high school sports coordinator Daniel Gaona at 807-7761 or dgaona@azstarnet.com. On Twitter @DanielGaona13

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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