Top-seeded Sahuaro scored four goals in the final 36 minutes and shut out Peoria Liberty 5-0 in the first round of the Division II state tournament to win its seventh straight game Tuesday night.
Peoria (14-6) began the playoffs having won seven straight, but the Cougars' strong defensive line and aggressive attacking style limited the Lions to only four shots for the game.
After losing in the first round last year, Sahuaro (15-7-1) came out determined to rewrite history without its assists leader, sophomore midfielder Allison Raniere, who is at training camp with the Elite Clubs National League.
"I was particularly impressed with Jaclyn Wittke and Fallon Nelson - because of missing Allison Raniere today, those two needed to step up," Sahuaro coach David Kruszewski said. "Breanna Parkinson, our center back, was outstanding today. Of course, offensively we had our chances as we always do, but ultimately we had our girls step up where we needed them to."
After a slow first half, with only one goal coming in the 30th minute, by senior forward and captain Anyssa Dagnino, the second half proved much more exciting for the Cougars.
Dagnino, who leads the team in scoring with 24, opened the second half with another goal off the assist from junior forward Jasmine Simmons to put Sahuaro up 2-0.
"Liberty is a good team," Kruszewski said. "When they started playing, I thought this was a good team. I think we just wore them out."
Two minutes later, senior midfielder Lexxi Hanaberg scored off the assist from senior midfielder Brittany Freeman, giving Sahuaro a 3-0 lead with practically an entire half left in the game.
As time ticked away, the pressure to score increased for Liberty, which was forced to play a defensive game for most of the match. Frustration set in as a Lions' foul resulted in a Cougars penalty kick.
"My girls played how I expected them to play, based on their regular season," Liberty coach Erin McRae said.
Nelson hit the crossbar, and the ball bounced just inside the goal line, giving Sahuaro a comfortable lead with 23 minutes left. The clincher came from Simmons in the 78th minute as she swept past Liberty's defense to score the final goal of the game.
"We have to go by every game," Dagnino said. "No matter what the team is seeded, we have to go out and play the same way we did today."