For years, the Horizon Honors boys soccer program has operated under the radar, curious given that this season marks the Eagles’ fourth consecutive trip to the 3A state tournament.
Maybe it’s because it is small. Maybe it’s because it’s a charter school and not part of a large district school system. Perhaps it’s because it does not yet have a legacy of success in sports.
Whatever the reason, this team at the small charter in southern Ahwatukee appears to be different from its soccer teams of the past.
A healthy mix of veteran experience with the energy of young players make places this one among the school’s best teams.
“I feel like this is the best group of kids I have been with,” senior defender and co-captain Garrett Armstrong said. “It means a lot to me to be the captain and to have this success and achieve something with them.”
Armstrong has been with the Horizon Honors program since 2014. He is materially involved with the growth of the program and learned how to be a leader from senior captains before him. He has emerged as one of the team’s top players.
Last season, Armstrong earned first-team honors in 3A and was the section’s Defensive Player of the Year. Even before the season ended, Armstrong was named a co-captain.
After yet another strong season, in which Armstrong and the Eagles went 7-1-2 and earned the No. 6 seed in the 3A playoffs, Eagles coach Bobby Smith believes that the senior is again in line to receive Defensive Player of the Year honor.
“A lot of coaches remember him because he is vocal, leads by example and plays through pain,” Smith said. “Really, it’s everything you want as a leader. The younger kids see that and want to recreate it themselves.”
As one of three senior captains, Armstrong sets an example for the young players, including his sophomore brother, Will.
Armstrong noticed right away that many underclassmen showed leadership qualities themselves. Many of them, including middle fielder Alex Lombardi, among five freshmen on the varsity roster, quickly saw playing time as a result.
“I’ve talked a lot more than a normal freshman or sophomore but I’ve learned to keep talking and make sure my team knows what is going on,” Lombardi said. “It’s the captains, really. They know how to lead us and always tell us what to do.”
Lombardi’s ability to challenge upperclassmen for playing time raised expectations.
But one of the leading causes for the team’s record and seeding has come with their ability to play together on both ends of the field.
Horizon Honors has conceded just four goals this season, an impressive statistic that comes with the team’s ability to put pressure on opposing attackers. On the other end, Horizon Honors splits defenders as a cohesive unit, often leading to goals in their favor.
Kieran Andrew often finds himself in position for goals, as he leads the team with 12 scores this season. But while stats don’t jump off the page for other players, it’s the aspects of the game that often go unnoticed that has helped with the Eagles success.
“It comes down to the off the ball stuff,” Smith said. “We show we are organized and know how to communicate. To try and get a bunch of young men to do that, it takes a lot of work but these boys are willing to work.”
Horizon Honors begins the 3A state tournament Tuesday against 11th-ranked American Leadership Academy – Queen Creek.
Given their success in the regular season, it’s hard for the Eagles not to be as confident as any. But they’ve made it a priority to not let that confidence turn to arrogance as they remain focused on the task at hand.
“Even with our good record, we try to stay humble,” Armstrong said. “We don’t want to underestimate any of our opponents because we know teams change every year. We know we can’t underestimate any of our opponents.”