GILBERT — As with most defending state champions, Salpointe Catholic’s girls soccer team dealt with plenty of pressure all season.
A new coach and some new personnel can only add to that.
“I think we went in knowing that the target was going to be on our backs from the beginning of the season,” senior Isabella Almazan said. “Flagstaff is a great team.
“But we just needed to work on the way we play and play the way we know how to play.”
Less than five minutes into Saturday’s Class 4A state championship match, the pressure all but went away.
Kalista Kakou scored, giving No. 2 Salpointe the lead in what would become a 3-0 victory over top-rated Flagstaff at Williams Field High School.
“Bella (Almazan) played me this amazing ball, and so I just ran to it, and hit it into the goal and then we all celebrated because we got our lead,” Kakou said.
Salpointe (21-1-1) controlled much of the possession all day, the result was still in doubt until Almazan’s goal in the 53rd minute and Kakou’s penalty kick just six minutes from the end.
The win over Flagstaff (16-3-1) gave the Lancers’ their sixth state title and a repeat, just as they did in 1998 and 1999, when first-year coach Kelly Pierce was on the Salpointe backline herself.
“All week I was nervous, I had butterflies, I was stressing,” Pierce said. “And then, this morning, I woke up and I had a really good feeling.
“I was relaxed and I got on the bus and the girls were relaxed and were happy and having fun. And I thought, it’s going to be a good day today. I had a good feeling about it.”
The good feeling continued with the early goal, but Salpointe still only led 1-0 at halftime after a dominating 40 minutes.
“At halftime we said you have to look at it as if it were 0-0,” Pierce said. “You can never let down. Even at 3-0, I was still having heart palpitations on the sideline. They managed the game well.”
Almazan buried the ball in the left side of the net from 12 yards in the second half after a cross to freshman catalyst Sienna Gonzalez went just out of her reach but found Almazan’s foot.
An increasingly frustrated Flagstaff squad tried to up its physical game but had few quality chances and then in the 74th minute, Brianna White fouled Kakou in the box and Kakou converted.
The Lancers needed some extra effort against a team that averaged six goals a game this season and included Madelynn Shafer, who had 28 goals and 11 assists.
“We came in with a lot of confidence and focus from the start,” Salpointe senior Paloma Teran said.
“We had a lot of shutouts this season, our defense is so strong.
“We just scored right away and they really pushed our intensity.”
A year ago, as a fourth seed, Salpointe eliminated then-No. 1 Flagstaff in penalty kicks in the semifinals before winning the state title three days later.
“We had big shoes to fill,” Pierce said, referring to former coach Becky Freeman.
“We knew that coming into it. With them winning state, obviously the target was on our backs. So we knew all season it was going to be tough.
“When these girls came in, we told them we can’t get ahead of ourselves. Sure we set goals but they came in ready to work and prepared and focused.”
Kakou was more direct.
“I am so happy,” she said, “we are going to have two state rings.”