11/1/2012 It's simple for Yavapai soccer in District playoffs: Win and they're in
Daniel Baney/Courtesy Trappers head coach Rob Hill, right, goes over instruction with freshman defender Marcus Couldridge during menís soccer action at Northwest (Wyo.) College. The Trappers and Roughriders meet on the pitch this Friday in the first round of the West District Playoffs.
If nothing else, history is on the side of the Yavapai College men's soccer team as the program makes its first NJCAA Division I West District Tournament appearance in three years this week.
Since 1990, the seven-time national champion Roughriders have won 19 district crowns and have never lost when they've qualified for this postseason round, one that determines which clubs get into the NJCAA D-I National Tournament later this month.
In the district semifinals at 11 a.m. Friday in Rock Springs, Wyo., Region I champion and No. 3 nationally ranked Yavapai (21-2-0 record) takes on Region IX runner-up Northwest College of Wyoming (15-6-0) in pursuit of its 20th national tourney berth.
"Our players are certainly ready, and we hope to carry the momentum we've gained in our two region tournament matches (last week) up in Wyoming," Yavapai coach Mike Pantalione said via a phone interview en route to Wyoming on Wednesday. "We've had some memorable district matches through the years."
The other semifinal pits Region XVIII representative North Idaho College (6-6-3) versus Region IX champ and tourney host Western Wyoming (13-8-1) immediately afterward, at 1:30 p.m.
Semifinal winners advance to the district championship at noon Saturday and are automatically guaranteed spots into the newly expanded 12-team national tournament, up from eight, Nov. 12-17 in Albany, Ga. Semifinal losers are eliminated.
All West District games will be played on Western Wyoming's artificial surface. The Roughriders have competed on turf only once this season in a 4-0 victory at Paradise Valley Sept. 13 in Phoenix.
Pantalione said Northwest College is a well-coached team with "some outstanding players," led by sophomore midfielder Dean Johnson and freshman forward Jamie McMorrow.
Last year, the Trappers lost to 2011 Region I champion Pima in the district round in Tucson.
"With their experience in district competition, it cannot be underestimated by any means," Pantalione said.
To move on to the district tourney, Yavapai defeated Pima 5-2 in the Region I semifinals last Thursday and No. 13 Arizona Western, 1-0, in the Region I championship last Saturday night in Prescott Valley.
Meanwhile, Northwest College - a third-year program that's qualified for its region final in each of its first three seasons - knocked off 19th-ranked Otero, 4-3, in a double-overtime shootout in a Region IX Tournament semifinal before succumbing to Western Wyoming, 2-1, in the championship.
To advance to the Region IX title match last weekend, Western Wyoming upset No. 18-ranked Laramie County (Wyo.), the region's top seed, in the semis in another double-OT shootout.
"That was quite a feat," Pantalione said.
Northwest's championship-game loss denied the program a second straight region crown, which disappointed Trappers coach Rob Hill. Northwest finished as region champs in 2011 and as the runner-up this fall and in 2010.
"We basically saved our most important weekend to perform at our worst," Hill said. "We played very poorly, especially in the final."
Oddly enough, Hill said he did not realize that his team had qualified for the district round until Monday afternoon.
What he failed to grasp is that the region hosting this year's district tournament automatically qualified both its region champion and its runner-up. District hosting duties rotate among Regions I, IX and XVIII of the western U.S.
"I read the format wrong, and I thought we were done," Hill said. "I'd already arranged to get the uniforms collected in and we were packed up and finished. I was so mad after the weekend that basically when I found out I'm like, 'Oh, wow. OK.' When we got the second chance to come in, it was a pleasant surprise for us."
Although Yavapai and Northwest have never met on the pitch, Hill is familiar with the Roughriders. In 2009, when Hill was a high school coach in Wyoming, one of his best players, Gavin LaFollette, went on to play at YC and Hill traveled to Prescott once that fall to watch him.
On Friday, Hill said his technically skilled Trappers must play focused and with passion, while exuding mental toughness and being intelligent on the ball, to contend with Yavapai.
"They've got a program that's expected to be in the national tournament and hunting for the national title every year," Hill said of YC. "We know we're huge underdogs in this game. We know that we've got to be absolutely formidable, even if we're going to have a chance."
Leading the Roughriders this season are freshman midfielder Alex Harlley and sophomore defenders Sam Cusack and Eddie Jasso. They were named to the All-Arizona Conference/All-Region I first team Oct. 20.
Midfielder Carlos Lara and goalie Daniel Sellitti, a pair of All-ACCAC/All-Region I second-team picks, are standouts as well for Yavapai.
Northwest fields a green team featuring 22 freshmen, but Hill said he's glad his players will be challenged by one of the finest junior college clubs in the nation.
"I'm just looking forward to the opportunity to being on the same field with them and just enjoying the occasion," Hill said. "Sunday we were down and out, and Monday (I found out) we have a chance to play Yavapai. If anything, I've looked at Yavapai and would like to emulate what they've done and use them as a model."