It’s the one night most senior athletes in high school both dream of and dread heading into their final year competing at the high school level.
For some, senior night brings with it a way to celebrate the accomplishments throughout one’s high school career. But for others, including some members of the Desert Ridge girls soccer team, it signaled the end of a decade-long bond as teammates on the soccer field.
The pregame festivities already brought along a swirl of emotions for all nine senior girls. But that quickly gave way to an even more emotional ending their match last Tuesday against Mountain Pointe.
“Our message all season has been, ‘who is going to make an impact? Who is going to be the one that gets a game-winner with 20 seconds left?’” Desert Ridge girls soccer coach Danny Gonzalez said. “We found a way.”
With just under 30 seconds remaining with Desert Ridge and Mountain Pointe tied at a goal apiece, junior Emma Brown found herself streaking toward the net behind the Pride’s back line. As she and Mountain Pointe goalie Kristen Kopplin made contact, the ball ricocheted forward and rolled into the net to secure Desert Ridge’s win.
It was the type of play Gonzalez had eluded to before the start of the 2019-20 season, when he was hired to take over the girls soccer program at Desert Ridge.
His goal early on was to establish a culture within the program centered around becoming a family. In his mind, that would help each girl become accustomed to a style of coaching they were unfamiliar with. As the season has progressed, the team has bought in to everything new surrounding the program this year. And it has shown in Desert Ridge’s last eight games, where it went 6-2 leading up to the postseason.
But it hasn’t been like that the entire season for the Jaguars. In fact, they were on the wrong end of the scoreboard on several occasions in the first half of the season.
“It was stressful,” Gonzalez said. “On any given day in high school you can win or lose. But this group has bought in to the culture and I think that’s why we are seeing these types of results after a rough start.”
Desert Ridge began the season with two consecutive ties before a convincing win over Tolleson in a preseason tournament it hosted. At the Coyote Classic, however, the Jaguars fell in three straight matches. Another tie and loss followed before they were finally able to get their first power-point win over Mountain View on Jan. 7.
Following a loss to Basha in their next outing, something clicked. They were finally able to find a consistent rhythm and rattled of five straight wins, including one over then-top-ranked Desert Vista.
Now eight games removed from the loss to the Bears, Desert Ridge is nearing the end of the season having outscored opponents 25-6 during the eight-game stretch with just two losses to a pair of playoff teams.
It’s quickly become clear the Jaguars seem to be hitting their stride at the right time.
“We’ve been working hard all season,” sophomore Amanda Bix said. “After winter break everything clicked, and we learned to fight for each other. That has been the main goal every single game.”
Bix has been played a key role in Desert Ridge’s success as of late. She leads the team with 11 goals on the season, her latest coming against Mountain Pointe.
Gonzalez said Bix from the start has been one of the leaders when it came to embracing the new culture set forth by him this season. Part of that, he said, comes from her believing in herself and her ability to not only learn a new position, but to thrive in it as well.
“She’s bought in to the new role and she’s been the first one to hold herself accountable and produce,” Gonzalez said. “She was nervous at first, but she’s believing.”
Bix has quickly become one of several leaders both vocally and by example on the field for Desert Ridge. Part of her ability to step into such a role stems from the close bond between each girl on the team.
Not one player holds themselves above another, whether they wear one of four captain’s bands or not. They all hold themselves and each other accountable whether it be in practice or during a match.
They all share the same vision of making a run in the playoffs, and they all recognize what it will take to get there.
“We just need to continue working hard,” said senior Abby Frey, who has scored six goals this season. “As long as we do that, I think anything is obtainable.”
Frey is one of four seniors that wears the captain’s bands for every match. An honor she’s earned having played a key role in the girls soccer program since she was a freshman.
As she moved up a grade level each year, she watched as the seniors ahead of her never got to enjoy a win on senior night. The last time the Jaguars won on the night seniors were honored was in 2016.
“We haven’t won senior night in a while,” Frey said. “So, to kind of start off a new winning streak is special. It feels like all of our hard work is starting to pay off.”
While a win in their final regular-season home game of their careers was uplifting, each girls aspires to achieve even more this season.
“We just need to keep our heads on straight and remember our goal is to fight for each other,” Bix said. “We aren’t going to let this success get to our heads and just keep our eyes on the prize.”