GILBERT - Back-to-back state titles are never easy, but with a lead against a frustrated team playing a man down it would seem like the script for an easy Salpointe win.
However, Saturday was never easy as the Lancers had to hold on and didn't clinch the championship until the final minutes, beating Glendale Apollo 2-0, completing a Tucson sweep of the Division II soccer state title matches at Campo Verde High School.
"It was really special," said senior captain Colin O'Brien, whose free kick secured the win in the 78th minute. "Thankfully, we were able to come through in the second half."
For Salpointe (26-2), it was the sixth state championship in nine title game appearances and another milestone for three-decade coach Wolfgang Weber, who won his first title in 1985.
"This group of kids is absolutely one of the best teams we have had in the history of soccer at Salpointe," Weber said.
That's saying something with the success the parochial school has seen since Weber arrived in the early 1980s. In the current squad, he had a group of seniors that set the stage for two spectacular seasons.
Weber acknowledged seniors Christian Garcia, who was injured during most of the season; Arturo Vega, who stepped in for Garcia; leading scorer T.J. Hope; defender Sergio Anaya; and O'Brien.
"That is the group of guys that we felt could win a state championship and what did we do, we won two of them, back-to-back," Weber said. "I can't say enough about that group; their leadership is what got us here."
Ironically, it was a sophomore, Gavino Carranza, who got the icebreaker for Salpointe on Saturday with a beautiful shot in the 47th minute from the far left on a narrow angle that found the upper right corner of the net, just out of the reach of goalkeeper Steven Flores.
"A goal is a goal, and it is very exciting to score in a championship like that," Carranza said.
But the sixth state title in school history didn't come easy because the fourth-seeded Lancers found themselves in a tussle with a physical, aggressive squad in No. 14 Apollo. The Hawks (14-9-1) were a bit of a Cinderella but had gotten scorer Eric Carbajal back this semester after he went to play in Mexico, then returned to play with brother Marco, who had 14 goals to lead Apollo this season.
A frustrating first half was scoreless as Salpointe failed to convert several opportunities. But this was a squad that finished the postseason outscoring its opponents 20-1.
"At times it is frustrating, cross after cross, you don't get what you want," Carranza said. "It puts you down a little bit, but you have to keep fighting, keep your head up and keep going for it, and that's what we did."
"I think there was a little frustration at the half because we've gotten used to having our way," Weber said. "All of sudden there is a team that is playing us very tough defensively, but we encourage people to go forward. It paid off for us."
Salpointe's backline, led by Anaya, kept the Carbajals at bay most of the cold, windy afternoon, although Taylor Anderson had to stay on his toes, making five saves.
On the other side, Vega had six of the Lancers' 16 shots, including a couple of rockets at Flores.
O'Brien kept trying to work up the left sideline to create chances and was rebuffed or shot wildly. Apollo also kept Hope in check with Flores needing to make a key save on a one-on-one chance late in the first half.
O'Brien would get his reward late, but first came Carranza's goal in the 47th minute, and a key turning point came shortly after that.
Just over a minute later, the Hawks' Rodrigo Hernandez fired in a throw-in that Andy Alanis got his head on, but his flick went just wide with Anderson a bit out of position.
In the 50th minute, Alanis, Apollo's captain, tripped a Lancer at midfield, was yellow carded and then after slamming the ball on the ground in protest, was given a second yellow, sending him off and putting the Lancers a man up for the final 30 minutes.
Salpointe - which got yellow cards early in a chippy state title match against Scottsdale Notre Dame a year ago - stayed poised.
"We have to keep our heads and keep playing strong," Carranza said.
Weber added: "Even before the game that's something we address. We need to keep our composure under all circumstances."
He noted the yellow cards to Garcia and Vega last season.
"We didn't get a card at all even though it got very hectic. I think that is also part why we were successful today," Weber said.
The Hawks still created a few more chances, with Hernandez taking corners that were consistently cleared by the Salpointe defense. But the Hawks also got a couple more yellow cards as the tension increased.
Anderson had to make a couple of tough saves late, but O'Brien secured the win when Apollo was called for a foul about 30 yards from goal in the center of the field. O'Brien put the free kick into the upper right corner for his 19th goal of the season and completed the back-to-back successful campaigns.
"We were definitely very frustrated as a team, but the final pass, the critical piece of play wasn't working for us," O'Brien said. "It was frustrating because we have been flying in these playoffs with a really difficult opposition in Apollo today. I think throughout the entire first half we were rattled and obviously didn't play to the best of our abilities."
"It was very emotional," O'Brien added about his late goal. "I couldn't have asked for a better way to end four years with this program. It's such a special win. To win with some of my best friends, we have been together for so long. It was amazing."