For most of the season, Salpointe Catholic was without its leader.
In early September, the Lancers lost midfielder Christian Garcia to a hernia injury.
For four months, Garcia wasn't able to help No. 4 Salpointe (23-2) in its state title defense, which the Lancers officially started in a 6-1 thrashing of Mohave High School (17-3-1) on Wednesday night.
It hurt Garcia to cough and get out of bed, but what hurt the most was that he wasn't able to contribute for Salpointe in his senior season.
Then, finally, he returned on Jan. 19 in a game against Flowing Wells and scored a goal in a win.
"I'm feeling really good," Garcia said Wednesday.
Salpointe coach Wolfgang Weber is slowly working Garcia back into the mix. In his first two games back, he played 20 minutes in each, and then that bumped up to 40 against Sierra Vista Buena on Jan. 23.
He played 35 in the first playoff game.
"We're, of course, a little cautious right now," Weber said. "It's been such a long layoff, so we've gradually increased the minutes. I think just looking at the way he plays and competes, I think we can gradually increase that as we go along.
"Christian is a terrific player. Even if he goes at 70 percent of his usual capabilities, he's still going to be extremely helpful."
Garcia didn't record a goal or assist in the Lancers' dominant win against Mohave, but he didn't have to.
Will Martin scored two goals and was the driving force on at least one more. In the fifth minute, he had a shot on goal that the goalie blocked, but T.J. Hope was there for the rebound to put it in for a 1-0 lead.
In the next three minutes, Salpointe scored two more goals, including one from Martin, and the Lancers ran away with the game.
Martin scored his second goal on an assist from Vincent Bianchi in the 23rd minute.
"I thought we had a brilliant start. Couldn't ask for a better start." Weber said. "We had terrific rhythm, created a lot of opportunities. I thought that was, for all intents and purposes, a perfect first half."
In the opening half, Salpointe outshot Mohave 12-1.
"We were all in sync," Martin said. "We were working like a machine."
In the second half, with a commanding 5-0 lead, Weber felt Salpointe took its foot off the pedal a little bit. Salpointe gave up its first, and only, goal in the 32nd minute.
It came after Lancers goalkeeper Taylor Anderson received a yellow card and was replaced by backup Corbin Sneva.
• No. 15 Amphitheater 2, No. 2 Douglas 0: At Douglas, senior Alan Gomez scored a pair of goals to help the Panthers pull off a stunning upset, sending them to the Division III quarterfinals.
"Even though we were a 15 seed we went in there pretty confident and kind of dominated Douglas," Amphi coach Mike Gonzales said.
Gomez gave Amphi (15-8) a 1-0 lead on a goal in the sixth minute and then scored again in the 68th.
"We just started a little slow and gave up that early goal," Douglas coach Ken Cormier said. "We made some changes in the second half and they took advantage of that to score their second goal."
Amphi goalkeeper Pedro Estuillo had six saves for the shutout, helping the team to its fifth win in six games.
• No. 7 Palo Verde 6, No. 10 Phoenix Christian 0: At Salpointe, the Titans advanced to the state quarterfinals for the third time in the last four years.
Palo Verde (13-5) made quick work of its opponent in the first round of the Division III quarterfinals behind an offensive attack led by Ather Dawod.
His goal in the first minute of the match was one of four he had against the Cougars.
Dawod, the Titans' leading scorer, now has 35 goals this year.
"Ather is on a mission right now," Palo Verde coach Mario Gastelum said. "He has been the spearhead of our offense."
• No. 1 Phoenix South Mountain 5, No. 16 Catalina Foothills 1: At South Mountain, Catalina Foothills was unable to come back from a 3-0 halftime deficit and was bounced from the Division II state tournament in the opening round.
"We played with a lot of heart. South Mountain was very effective and their direct counter game we did not handle well," Foothills coach Julie Walters said.
• No. 2 Tempe Corona del Sol 1, No. 15 Desert View 0: At Corona del Sol, Grant Gallont's goal in the 68th minute knocked the Jaguars from the Division I state tournament.
"(We) played very hard, but Corona del Sol was a little bit bigger, stronger and faster than us," said Desert View coach David Hunter.
• No. 3 Phoenix Desert Vista 5, No. 14 Rincon/University 0: At Desert Vista, the Thunder's Danny Gavin scored two goals, including a penalty kick in the 50th minute to eliminate the Rangers from the Division I state tournament.
"The game started out really even, but (a) penalty kick took the wind out of our sails," said Rincon coach Roxanne Taylor.
• No. 1 Phoenix Brophy 3, No. 16 Tucson 0: At Brophy, the Broncos knocked the Badgers (12-4-3) from the Division I state tournament.