For 70 minutes, neither Xavier or Desert Vista could find the right combination. Both teams had its share of possession although the Gators seemed to gain the upper hand in the second half.
Nevertheless, it took a defender to break the deadlock and validate a long, rocky season for the perennial power in No. 4 Xavier's 1-0 victory against No. 2 Desert Vista in the Division I state girls soccer championship game at Campo Verde H.S.
“It was awesome,” defensive star Kellie Peay, whose second goal of the season was the difference on Saturday. “The first half really wasn’t our game. We didn’t gain possession as much as we would like to but second half we turned it around. We played as a team. We got the goal and from there we just played defense and won the game.”
Peay kept turning away Thunder chances Saturday afternoon, but until she got her head on a corner kick from Alexis Allard with under 10 minutes left in regulation, the Gators were coming up short.
“The goal was fantastic,” Xavier coach Barb Chura said. “We spend so much time on set pieces because it’s often set pieces in these higher level games that win games and lose games. It just so happened that we were on the winning end of it.”
The defense made the goal stand to give Xavier its eighth state championship and third in five years including back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
“It’s hard to get beat on a set piece," Desert Vista coach Marvin Hypolite said. "One goal.”
Xavier still had to weather the final nine-plus minutes and survived despite Peay getting a gash next to her right ear after a collision with Desert Vista’s McKenna Rodriguez in the final seconds, almost reflective of the season.
“Yeah, I’m alright. We won. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a gash.”
Her coach put it another way.
“That’s the story of the season,” she said. “At one point we had eight starters out. Through everything, through sickness, injuries, transfer, just throughout the whole year. It started way back in December. It seems like an onslaught. But we just kept telling the girls that the next girl is going to have to step up, the next girl is going to do it.”
But adversity was definitely the theme.
“Our team has been through a lot this year,” leading scorer Michaela Dooley said. “We had torn ligaments, broken bones and to come back and have all these girls around us play and pull through this game, it’s amazing.”
Hypolite praised his defense but said the transition from midfield up to the forwards did not go as well, leaving the Thunder short of opportunities.
“I wanted a little more, in terms of execution,” the second-year coach said. “We stuck in there, gave it all we got.”
A lackluster first half saw the Thunder have a majority of possession, but Xavier earned the best chances. Emily Vandenberg’s corner kick to Peay was saved by Desert Vista sophomore goalkeeper Alexa Ryder in the 16th minute.
Vanderberg got a free kick a few minutes later, blocked by the Desert Vista defensive wall. A couple more free kicks also went awry.
Even Dooley – who scored 26 goals on the season for Xavier – couldn’t find the net on Saturday, but she consistently pushed the ball up and tried to create chances. Cassidy Cunningham, going up the left wing, tried to get the ball on several occasions to no avail.
“The girls are very resilient,” Chura said. “If there is one word to sum us up, it’s probably persevere. We just persevered through everything.”
“It’s very, very, very satisfying.”
The Desert Vista defense, anchored by 6-foot-1 Hannah Stevens, stayed solid all afternoon, outside of the 70th minute corner kick.
Early in the second half, Cunningham passed to Allard in front of the goal but Stevens blocked it back to Allard, who fired again and it was stopped by Ryder.
Xavier got another flurry right after that sequence but without a result. The cold, windy conditions likely didn’t help as more than a few long shots wide or high of the target.
Chura loved that Peay - whom the coach called the "best defender in the state" - got the title clincher this time.
“I knew this was my chance, I just had a feeling, and I got it done,” Peay said.
Xavier lost in the semifinals to eventual-champion Highland last season. Desert Vista eliminated the Hawks in this year’s semifinals to reach the final for the fifth time in school history. The Thunder has one state title in 2005.