Lady Tigers looking to dominate district soccer once again

Steven Bortstein
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — The Aztec Lady Tigers will be out once again to prove themselves as the top girls soccer team in District 1-4A when they kick off their season Friday in the first round of the Aztec Shootout Tournament.

Looking for their fifth consecutive district title, the Lady Tigers appear to be heavily favored, coming off another strong season, albeit a short one last spring in which they compiled a record of 9-2-1, including a nearly unblemished record of 6-0-1 within the district.

Head coach Leroy Nelson said the team overcame quite a bit both on and off the field last season to put up such strong numbers before they were eliminated in the state semifinals in a 2-0 to Hope Christian.

"Considering all the waiting they had to do to get on the field, because (coronavirus-related shutdowns) kept us off for so long, it was incredible what they did once they got back out there," Nelson said.

Two players who had vital roles in the Lady Tigers success last season will both be returning this season as well.

Ashley Sexton and Samyra Valenzuela led the attack much of the way for Aztec last season and are expected to be big contributors once again.

"They were our key players all season in the middle as far as distributing the ball," Nelson said of both Sexton and Valenzuela. "They're both really strong so they had a big impact for us."

Denym Seabolt and Dionne Nelson, who also led the Lady Tigers attack last season won't be back after graduating earlier this spring, but Nelson is confident that some new names will be stepping up.

"Araceli Huaracha will be taking the lead role for us this season," Nelson said. "She has a real strong grasp of the game and will provide a great impact for the rest of the girls."

Nelson believes that because so many of the athletes worked together during the shortened season that they'll rally around each other once again.

"I think we're going to be real strong this season," Nelson said. "The younger players on the team learned a lot from our older players and that only made them better."

In addition to being one of the favorites to win their fifth straight district title, the Lady Tigers haven't lost a district match in four seasons, compiling a 31-0-2 mark since 2017 within their own district, which includes Bloomfield, Kirtland Central, Miyamura and Gallup.

Aztec's Samyra Valenzuela looks to pass the ball down the right side against Albuquerque Academy's Claire Rembe during the 4A girls soccer state quarterfinals on Tuesday, April 6, 2021, at Fred Cook Memorial Stadium in Aztec.

That said, Nelson doesn't want to take anything for granted, especially after the tumult of a shortened season which played havoc with both coaches and players.

"I wished we had been able to be more hands-on with the team during the downtime," Nelson said. "It was difficult to realize our expectations when we were lingering on for so long and not even being able to do the things with our team like would have otherwise."

Nelson is aware that because of their recent successes, Aztec's girls team will have a bullseye pointed right at them within the district.

"There's going to be some closer games this season for sure," Nelson said. "Bloomfield and Kirtland Central will both be coming around even more this time around." 

The Lady Tigers will likely get their first glimpse of their district rivals as the Aztec Shootout progresses.

The tournament opens on Friday at 10 a.m. at the Tiger Sports Complex when Aztec faces Farmington High's junior varsity squad. The winner of that match will face either Los Lunas or Kirtland Central later that day. 

On Saturday, semifinal and championship matches will be held with Farmington, Bloomfield, Miyamura and Hobbs representing the other side of the bracket. 

Bloomfield's girls team, which last season compiled an overall record of 4-5-1, brings back a very young team this season, which coach Jamey Jones hopes will be able to get them to the next level.

"We've got some very young kids out here this season, but they play with a lot of passion and they're excited to get out there," Jones said. 

The Lady Bobcats went 4-2-1 in district last season, finishing their campaign with a scoreless tie against Aztec, a match which Jones said was a big moment for the team.

"That was such a big game for us, especially for the seniors on the team who had worked so hard," Jones said. 

Kirtland Central coach Eric Hooper admits his team will be a little pressed — he joined the team as coach less than a month ago. Hooper, who had been an assistant coach on the Broncos boys team last season, previously was an assistant coach at Grambling State University and their women's soccer program from 2017 through 2019. 

Hooper was hired to take over the girls team earlier this summer following the exit of Chad Kimball. He inherits a team that compiled a record of 4-6 last season and went 4-2 in district play, but believes he's got a squad that can do some very good things this season.

"Marissa Henry has everything you want in a soccer player, she runs long distance, she's got speed and she's going to be a key to our success this season," Hooper said. "Also, I'm expecting big things from Madison Manuelito, who will be one of our top goalkeepers."

Both Gallup and Miyamura are coming off 0-8 campaigns during the shortened 2021 spring season. The Miyamura squad lost their games by a combined margin of 41-4, while Gallup surrendered 69 goals and scored only six times.

Steve Bortstein can be reached via email at SBortstein@Gannett.com, via Twitter @DTSBortstein or on the phone at (505) 635-2680