It is one thing to win a state title. Another, more impressive feat to do so with an undefeated team.
At some level above that resides the Northwest Christian 2021 girls soccer squad. During their 16-0 season the Crusaders did not win a game by less than three goals. In total they outscored opponents by a whopping 130 goals.
It all started with a 2020 playoff upset at the hands of American Leadership Academy-Gilbert North. Senior midfielder and captain Rachel Cooning said she knew this group was special when the entire squad showed up for workouts in the July heat despite no guarantee of a season.
For four days in January, it appeared the winter sports season was off and the 12 seniors would not have the chance for redemption.
"We didn't want our last high school game to be a loss we had in the playoffs our junior year. So we played every game like it was our last because it could've very well been our last game together," Cooning said. "We just cherished every time we could be together on and off the field."
Coach Jeff Penzone said 14 or 15 players of last year's team came back. And many of them had the experience from a 2019 3A state title team and the drive to get back to that pinnacle.
The seventh-year coach said the Crusaders were unusually dialed in, even from training from the start of training.
"For them to keep their focus all the way through, I think they knew they had something special so they dialed into that," Penzone said. "I counted on my seniors a lot, Whitney (Wilson) especially, to get that message onto the field. You could see that each one of those girls was really directed and trying to accomplish something that a lot of people would think was extraordinary."
On March 20 Northest Christian won its second girls soccer title ever - and second in three years - beating #3 seed Scottsdale Christian (11-2-1) 3-0 in the state final in Scottsdale.
It tied with a 4-1 quarterfinal victory over Tucson Pusch Ridge Christian for the team's closest game all year. And in reality the Eagles gave the Crusaders their sternest test, holding the top seed scoreless in the first half.
"SCA gave us fits in that first half. We didn't know what to do. We were kind of perplexed," Penzone said. "My assistant coaches came up with a plan. We decided to roll it out and it worked great in the second half. We had a deeper bench that a lot of people."
Penzone said the underlying motivation was always Wilson Floyd, a freshman who splits time between the junior varsity and varsity roster. Recently Floyd had her Ewings sarcoma cancer removed from her knee and she is going through chemotherapy now.
"One of my favorite memories from the state playoffs was always breaking down the team before the game with the chant 'for Wilson.' And my favorite memory from the state game was running to my sisters with open arms and big smiles to celebrate," Whitney Wilson said.
The Northwest Christian girls soccer team celebrates holding up the 3A state championship trophy on March 20 at Coronado High School in Scottsdale [Courtesy Cheryl Cooning/For West Valley Preps]
The team did homework together, often went out to eat, wrote notes to each other and had team sleepovers, which built a high level of trust when playing too.
"I had faith that when I would give them the ball they would make the right decision with it. I knew with full confidence that any team we faced could not break us down and we would fight as one unit until we came out on top. I never had any doubts about this team," Cooning said.
This group was already close from last season. Then the Crusaders brought in an elite finisher and the team's chemistry went to another level.
Sophomore forward Ellie Johannes played for the developmental academy program last year, but that collapsed. She more than fit in at Northwest Christian, leading the team and the state by a wide margin with an eye-popping 51 goals.
"The DA went down and they came up with another group. this group was going to allow their players to play high school. COVID made everything go sideways and it was touch and go if these kids were going to play," Penzone said. "I definitely knew she had the ability to do it. You could just tell by how she presented herself and movement off the ball. For her to get it done says a lot of her."
He said the forward line of Johannes, sophomore Tatum Berwitt and senior Ella Kamp gelled better than any he has seen as seven years as girls coach.
That did not surprise Wilson.
"Our team is a family no matter what grade, position or years you've been on the team. We are so accepting and inclusive that it was easy to bring on Ellie. She was another sister and fit in perfectly. It felt like she was there forever," Wilson said.
Cooning joined Beasley and Bella Floyd paced the midfield. Senior Carly Garberding and junior Lauren Maszton fortified the group and frequently substituted again.
Wilson and junior Makenzi Wiesley were the bedrock of the interior defense, while seniors Avery Kamp and Natalie Oosterhouse shined at outside back. Senior goalkeeper Bethany Heater faced only 25 shots all year and sophomore Taylor Paulus got plenty of experience in the blowouts - but Heater allowed only three goals all season.
"People saw how we dominated all the teams we faced, including Gilbert Christian who put up a great fight, but what they didn't see is all the work we put in at practice. How we would spend hours on little details like taking shot after shot, doing the same sequences over and over again until we got them perfect," Cooning said. "All those things, our hard work and determination is what put us back on top this year. And it was the best feeling to win not just myself but my whole team."
The Northwest Christian girls soccer team celebrates seconds after winning the 3A state title 3-0 against Scottdale Christian on March 20 at Coronado High School in Scottsdale [Courtesy Cheryl Cooning/For West Valley Preps]
Northwest Christian only trailed once all year, 1-0 to Phoenix Country Day. Johannes was out in the first half after breaking her arm and before being medically cleared to play.
Bella Floyd and Berwitt combined for three goals in first half after falling behind and the Crusaders cruised to a 7-1 win.
As Penzone was quick to point out to his players, the playoffs were completely different. That was particularly true of the semifinal showdown against Gilbert Christian.
Oddly enough, this matchup of the 2019 and 2020 3A champions for a spot in the 2021 finals was the first time the Christian schools faced off in those three seasons.
"We kinda saw what they were doing and matched it. Then when struck we struck fast. That's been one of the things that's been impressive about this year. When we hit, we hit hard and we hit quickly," Penzone said.
Wilson said this team is unlike any other than she played for. And a lot of it came from the purpose of playing for Floyd.
"We had the mentality to play selfless for her and as if the season could end at any minute," Wilson said. "Not only that, but having the opportunity to be with wach other for two months before our first game was a really cool bonding experience."