For the first time in Aztec girls' soccer history, the Lady Tigers will play for a state championship.
No. 3 Aztec (21-2) advanced to the 4A title game by defeating No. 2 Los Alamos (18-4) 1-0 in overtime Friday at the APS Soccer Complex in Albuquerque.
After taking control of the game in the second half, the Lady Tigers carried momentum into overtime with the game still scoreless.
Just three minutes into the overtime period, Aztec junior forward Jessica Kresl buried a shot in the back of the Hilltoppers' net, sending Aztec into an emotional midfield celebration.
"I love these girls, and I have played with them for so long," Kresl said. "To be able to score that goal for the team was great. I am glad I had the chance to shoot it."
This year's title game will mark just the second time any Aztec soccer team — boys or girls — has played for a state championship.
Aztec's only other appearance was in 1991 when the Tigers beat Bloomfield for the 3A state championship.
Current Aztec Lady Tigers head coach Stephen Parks was a member of that 1991 team.
"This is exciting because I have told the girls all year they are a state championship team. We always had the potential to win this year, and now we are right here in the game," Parks said. "It would be a great win for the girls, the community and all of San Juan County to prove we do have good soccer programs up there."
The path to the first state title for Aztec still goes through No. 1 Albuquerque Academy — winners of the last four state championships.
The Lady Tigers faced the Chargers on Sept. 22 in Aztec, a game Albuquerque Academy won 1-0 in overtime.
"We know Academy isn't unbeatable. We felt like we had opportunities to win that game, and now we have a chance to come out and get a win against them," Parks said. "There is a not a lot of pressure on us. They are the four-time defending state champs. We just have to play our game."
The Lady Tigers believe they controlled the tempo of the game in the first meeting but allowed the deciding goal in overtime.
"It was such an equal game. We took possession but they won in overtime," Kresl said. "It will be great for us to try to get back and win it this time around."
Aztec came out a bit tight Friday morning against Los Alamos, but dominated the second half before overtime, Parks said.
"I wouldn't say we were flat, but we didn't play our game the first half. In the second half, I felt like we controlled the pace of the game and had several opportunities. There just weren't a whole lot of solid shots on goal," he said. "(Goalkeeper) Hannah Jones made the saves she needed to and our defense played well and executed."
Aztec shutdown the state's leading scorer, Amelia Neal, and held Los Alamos to just five shots on goal.
Kresl's opportunity to score in overtime came after a big run up the middle of the field and a pass from Hailey Morris.
"The Los Alamos girls on defense were yelling 'No shot, no shot,'" Parks said. "They stepped back and Kresl took a few touches and ripped a shot far post and the keeper couldn't adjust in time.
"When it went in, I sprinted to the middle of the field and started jumping up and down with the girls. They all ran into a big pile in front of the goal and our fans went nuts."
Parks and the Lady Tigers hope to have even bigger fan support in the state championship game tonight, especially knowing Academy will have a large fan base.
"I have already gotten texts and phone calls of people saying they are coming down. They may have a lot of fans, but we will have a ton of support as well. We had more fans today than Los Alamos," Parks said.
The other District 1-4A coaches plan on making the drive to support Aztec, too.
"I already talked to Leonel Camacho and Shaun Taylor will both be coming to cheer us on. I appreciate that. Shannon Gill and all of us get along very well. It is great having that support," Parks said.
For any fans debating whether to drive through a potential snow storm for a cold November morning game, Kresl has one message.
"Come support us. We have so much heart and talent. We think we can do it, and support would help us a lot," she said.