Playoffs a brand new reality for Lady Eagles

Matt Hollinshead,
Navajo Prep's Tionna Garner, center, goes after the ball to set up a counterattack during the first half in a Sept. 26 District A/4A match against Rehoboth Christian. The Lady Eagles clinched district and are going to the playoffs for the first time in team history.

FARMINGTON – Stacy Irwin couldn’t stop jumping up and down after his Navajo Prep girls soccer team’s 1-1 draw last Tuesday at Rehoboth Christian.

Players were initially puzzled, unsure of why their coach was all riled up.

“I didn’t really know what was going on, just not really getting the idea of it,” senior forward Nichelle Sliversmith said with a chuckle.

Irwin then told them before having team dinner they were district champions for the first time since the program’s inception in 2010. The players went bonkers.

“It’s actually really astonishing, but I’m not surprised. I knew my girls could do it. We had it in us,” senior forward Tionna Garner said.

Irwin’s decision to wait before breaking the news was deliberate. As exciting as it is to be playoff-bound, he doesn’t want them to get too caught up in the excitement.

“They’re making history,” said Irwin, who’s been at the helm since the program’s birth. “We’re still going to pound into them that we’re taking one game at a time. Whoever our next opponent is, we’re not going to take them lightly.”

And that’s what the Lady Eagles remain mindful of: balancing the task at hand with embracing this uncharted territory.

“We have our time to celebrate, that’s great and everything.  But now we’ve got to really focus. We’ve got to really give 110 percent,” Garner said. “We’ve got to play every game like it’s overtime pretty much.”

Irwin reminded his players of the tougher road that’s still to come. Teams the Eagles will likely face in the first round include Hope Christian, Moriarty, Taos and Sandia Prep. Opening-round 4A playoff matches start on Oct. 27 and 28.

“We’re going to come out full steam ahead. We’re going to be there to play, and the girls want to prove themselves,” Irwin said. “It’s do or die.”

Navajo Prep (5-10-2, 2-0-1) concludes the regular season at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Academy Tech, but the Eagles will go into playoff mode starting with that match, treating each one as if it were their last from now on.

One thing that helped make this newfound experience a reality was a change in formation this season. The Eagles went from a 4-2-1-3 to a 4-4-2, an attack-heavy formation where players can move more freely and spread the field out more.

“They’re finding open people to the side, moving the ball wider. They’re setting themselves up to score,” Irwin said.

Irwin said he wants to see even more cross passes, scoring chances off cross passes and to have players keep fine-tuning their touch in their shots.

Despite its rough start to 2017, clinching district also represents a new beginning for Navajo Prep.

“I’m still trying to process it. It’s unbelievable, especially for us. We’ve never gone to state or won district. Yeah, it’s different, it’s new, and it’s exciting,” Silversmith said.

Matt Hollinshead covers sports for the Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.