FARMINGTON — Of all the high school sports in San Juan County, girls soccer has been one of the most tightly contested in recent years.
During last season's District 1-4A race, nine of the 12 games were decided by a single goal as Farmington High emerged with the title over Aztec on a goal differential tiebreaker.
The Lady Tigers got a little revenge, however, during the state tournament, eliminating FHS in the semifinals.
It appears that more close games are on tap for the 2014 season as the two schools, along with state quarterfinalist Piedra Vista, return many key players and prepare for their first season in 5A.
Aztec, the two-time state runner-up, is looking for a third crack at a state championship and will bring back six All-State players from its 2013 team.
The Lady Tigers will have the scoring prowess of forward Hailey Morris at the head of the attack. Morris is coming off 27 goals and 14 assists during her junior season and will be flanked by forwards Devyn Martinez and Emily McDonald, who each received All-State honorable mention honors last year.
Defensively, Rikki Newland and goalkeeper Elana Kresl are also back after making second-team All-State a year ago to anchor the back line.
"It's always important to have key players coming back, when you have younger players coming in," Aztec head coach Stephen Parks said. "Right now, all those senior girls are helping the younger ones. We have a good group coming into the program. Our varsity and JV are going to be tough."
The Lady Scorps are also returning their top goalscorer, Hannah Kelley, who finished with 28 goals last year — the fourth-most in 4A.
"It is nice and comforting knowing Hannah is back, but at the same time, we need other goalscorers because everyone knows about Hannah," FHS head coach Shannon Gill said.
Including Kelley, the Lady Scorpions will return eight starters off of their semifinal team, and Gill is looking for that experience to push her team this season.
"We weren't satisfied with the way it ended last season and that adds fuel to the fire," she said.
Goalkeeper Bailey Carter will be in the net for FHS. She is one of three All-State honorable mention players coming back for the Lady Scorps, along with defender Aubriana Lopez and midfielder Payton Sandoval.
Piedra Vista is looking to jump up the level of Aztec and FHS after losing all four district encounters to the two squads a season ago.
The Lady Panthers, like their two closest rivals, have their top scorer, Jenna Brown, coming back. Brown led PV last year with 10 goals and nine assists. Also returning to the team is All-State goalkeeper Sara Engert.
First-year head coach Adam Huff said the strength of his team early in the season will be the defense as PV tries to put the pieces around Brown to add an offensive punch.
"Our strength is in the back. I'm fortunate to have three of the four defenders and goalie back," said Huff, who is also the head coach of the PV boys basketball team. "We've got some speed and girls that can hold up play. I'm going to give Jenna free reign to take shots and hope some of the girls can get in there and clean up after the saves."
Like FHS, PV was also knocked out of the state tournament by Aztec, losing 1-0 in the quarterfinals.
"You try to find a way," Huff said of PV adavancing further at state "The last two years, they've been third (in district) but have been solidly in the state tournament. They've been knocked out in the quarterfinals four straight years now. The seniors are sick of that."
This season, Gallup and Miyamura enter the district in place of Kirtland Central, which will remain in 4A.
Farmington, PV and Aztec have recently enjoyed success against their two new district opponents. Miyamura went a combined 0-4 against the three schools, while Gallup dropped a 10-0 mercy-rule decision to Aztec in 2013.
Despite the departure of the stronger KCHS squad, none of the three coaches expect the district to be any easier this season.
"It will be new for our district. We've played them and had success," Parks said of facing Gallup and Miyamura. "But again, once it's district play, everybody comes ready to go."
Parks and the Lady Tigers won't have to wait long to see one of the new district foes as Aztec opens its own tournament on Friday against Miyamura.
The Aztec coach said he's not worried about seeing the Lady Patriots so early in the season. He added that both teams will make adjustments before they meet again later in the year.
"I'm not too concerned with who we're playing as much as how we're playing," he said.
PV will also start its season at Aztec's tournament on Friday with one of the best teams in the state — last season's 4A champion St. Pius X.
Huff said his team is looking forward to the challenge.
"Being a new coach, you want to get that first win, but I'd like to see where the girls are at right now, then see where they're at in a month," said Huff, whose team is also scheduled to host the Lady Sartans on Sept. 20.
FHS begins its season on Saturday with Los Alamos in a matchup of 2013 district champs.
The Lady Hilltoppers finished a perfect 6-0 in District 2-4A play a season ago before losing in the first round of the state tournament to PV.
"It's a double-edge sword, because we've only had a week to mesh," Gill said of opening against a good opponent. "The way I arranged the schedule, I want to play those tough teams and be prepared. We beat them (Los Alamos) twice, and they'll be looking for a little revenge. We're going to have to be ready."