The Pima College men's soccer team will defend its NJCAA Division I national championship next week in Texas, after all.
The Aztecs will play No. 4 seed Eastern Florida State at 3 p.m. Monday. They'll continue pool play the following day against No. 5 seed Essex County College.
Pima received an at-large bid to the tournament on Tuesday. It fell to Arizona Western in the Nov. 2 Region I Championship game, which carried an automatic bid with it. Pima will enter the tournament as the No. 9 seed. NJCAA nationals will be held in Tyler, Texas from Nov. 18-23.
This will mark the Aztecs' third straight trip to the NJCAA Tournament and their sixth appearance in nine years. Pima hasn't finished lower than third place in its last three trips.
The Aztecs are 14-2-3, and finished the season ranked No. 13 overall.
While the Aztecs knew there was a chance they could receive an at-large bid, the 10 days that passed between the team's Nov. 2 loss to Arizona Western and receiving the news Tuesday morning was difficult for the players, said coach David Cosgrove, who has been with the team since 1998.
"We felt like our strength of schedule was very good. I think it was the toughest or second-toughest schedule in junior college soccer this year," Cosgrove said. The Aztecs played seven teams this season that are ranked in the top 20; Arizona Western was the only other team that played that many.
Pima is led by sophomore midfielder Itsuki Ishihara, who has scored a team-high 13 goals and is second with 29 points. Freshman forward Estevan Manzo is second with nine goals and first with 32 points; his 14 assists are tied for the team lead.
This year will mark the Aztecs' fifth trip to the tournament in the last six years.
"The strength of the program and our performance at the national level... we felt was good for our resume, but you just never know because there's some other teams out there that just didn't make it," Cosgrove said. "When we got the good news (Tuesday) morning, it was a great sense of relief. Now we're turning to the point where we're focusing on getting the job done when we go out there again."
The Aztecs this year have a deeper roster than in past years, with as many as 19 players that can step up during big moments, Cosgrove said. In past years, Cosgrove said, the team was only about 14 players deep.
"The one thing we're missing right now that we've had in the last couple years is in those very big moments, we've always had kids step up and make plays: Score a goal, make a save, block a shot," Cosgrove said. "This year, in some of the big games, those kind of moments have gone against us."
In the region finals against Arizona Western, the Aztecs lost in penalty kicks. In previous years, Cosgrove said, the team would have found a way to score a goal at some point in the game.
Cosgrove thinks the trip to Texas could be the turning point necessary for some of the Aztec players to seize the moment.
"We have some really good players who just hopefully now that we're in the national tournament will just take the next step," Cosgrove said. "But they're really close to becoming players who love the spotlight and in the biggest moments performs very well."