Aztec clawed its way to the state championship game for the first time in school history, but the Lady Tigers ran into a team with endless experience Saturday.
The No. 3 Lady Tigers were simply outmatched in the 4A girls’ soccer state championship against No. 1 Albuquerque Academy.
“I am very proud of the girls. They came out and fought hard,” said Aztec head coach Stephen Park. “A couple of things could have gone this way or that way and maybe changed the outcome, but we fought until the end.”
The Chargers (20-3) were led by senior forward MacKenzie Miller, who scored three goals to give Albuquerque Academy a 3-1 victory and a fifth-consecutive state championship.
The Chargers dominated play in Aztec’s third of the field. The Lady Tigers’ defense held strong through the opening 20 minutes, but eventually Miller broke the Aztec back line with a blast from 22 yards out.
The low-flying shot had a lot of movement before reaching Aztec goalkeeper Hannah Jones as a strong win played with the ball all game.
Aztec (21-3) finally gained possession of the ball for a 10-minute stretch following Miller’s first goal, but the Lady Tigers appeared anxious offensively and sent weak shots toward the goal instead of setting up an attack.
The game looked as though it would go into halftime with Aztec trailing 1-0 — a managable deficit for a team capable of scoring in bunches.
But in the third minute of injury time just before the half, Miller broke free and trickled a shot past Jones to give Academy a huge 2-0 advantage at the break.
“It may have seemed like a back-breaker, but we knew it wasn’t over,” Parks said. “We knew we could go score a couple of goals and getting a quick one would help.”
Aztec got the quick goal it was looking for just four minutes into the second half when junior forward Jessica Kresl, who scored the overtime winner against No. 2 Los Alamos in overtime of the state semifinals, was taken down in the Chargers’ box.
Kresl was awarded a penalty kick and had no problem converting with a soft shot.
“It sparked the whole team because it happened so fast,” Parks said. “We thought we could do it and we scrapped and fought the whole way. We were trying our hardest to go at it.”
But the Chargers put an end to any hopes Aztec had at a comeback when Miller scored again halfway through the second half, this time finishing on a one-on-one opportunity after Natalie Duboise made a beautiful run up the middle of the field before finding Miller with a through-ball.
After shutting down the state’s top-scorer, Amelia Neal, in the semifinals against Los Alamos, the Lady Tigers had no answers for Miller.
“Academy played a much more up and down style where Los Alamos played more side to side,” Parks said. “They made great runs through the middle and got great shots. They definitely had a different style.”
Academy outshot the Aztec 8-2 in the first half and 15-3 in the game.
It was Aztec’s first trip to a state championship with the girls’ soccer team, but Parks hopes the program is continuing to build upon an already solid foundation.
“Getting this first one under our belt, now we know what it feels like and what to expect next time,” Parks said. “I believe we can come back next year and have a good season and try to do the same thing again. It is hard to get to this game with a long road to get there. Hopefully we can navigate it again.”