The Desert Vista boys soccer team received a boost this season when five club-level players returned to the program for their senior season.
It took the Thunder to new a level, one that hadn't be reached since 2008.
And yet it still wasn't enough Saturday night to matchup with a nationally-ranked Brophy squad.
Ryan Grotjohn punctuated what a group of unheralded reserves began when thrusted into the starting lineup, then Riggs Lennon added the punctuation in No. 1 Brophy's 2-0 win over No. 3 Desert Vista in the state championship match at Campo Verde H.S.
Brophy's second title in three seasons didn't come without tumult. Broncos coach Marc Kelly benched four starters - including the All-State forward Lennon - for the first half of the match for what he called "discipline" issues stemming from late in the team's semifinals match against Tolleson.
But Brophy's depth paid dividends by a dominant performance in time of possession and scoring chances, and a Clarence Clark-led backline which neutralized Thunder forwards Nicholas Mangialardi and Danny Gavin most of the way.
It was scoreless at halftime, and that was just fine with the Broncos.
"I told the guys these are the 11 on the field and we all know what we have to do," Clark said while clutching the championship trophy. "Whether with starters or backups, this is our 11."
Confident about the scoreless draw despite chances and controlling play most of the first half: "Absolutely," Clark said.
Sure enough, the four starters entered in the second half, but Grotjohn - who wasn't among the four disciplined but limped at times during warmups because of his ankle - was in the right place at the right time.
Six minutes into the second half, a crossing pass by Clark deep in Desert Vista territory led to a point-blank shot by Tyler Dial. His shot was stopped by Thunder goalkeeper Tim O'Brien but the riccochet went to Grotjohn standing nearby to clean up the chaos for a 1-0 lead.
A standout baseball player, Grotjohn iced his ankle after Thursday's match "for what felt like three or four hours," and though Clark said Grotjohn was hobbling around at school on Friday, he iced his ankle again before Saturday's match, though warmups were the litmus test.
"He really gutted it out today," Kelly said.
The Thunder's defense held on most of the night while the offense struggled to get anything going, but D.V. had a golden chance a few minutes later. On a rare run through Brophy's zone, a perfect centering pass by John Abernathy found Nick Mangialardi (seven goals this postseason) in front of the Brophy net. His mid-air shot was hit flush, but hit the crossbar.
"I thought it had it," Mangialardi said. "It was right there.
Desert Vista put the pressure on Brophy more often in the second half after the lineup went from five midfielders to four and the urgency picked up, but Broncos goalie Phil Mourikes - filling in for Michael O'Connor who suffered a concussion earlier in the state tournament - made three saves.
"Brophy seemed a step ahead, a little quicker reaction," Thunder coach Mike Rabasaca said. "I don’t know that we played anyone that quick and sharp so we had to adjust to something we hadn't seen before accept maybe in California (tournament). The second half we played far better but didn’t get the quality chances I thought we’d get.
Lennon scored the clincher with little more than five minutes left off another rebound, this time after David Lane blasted a point-blank in which O'Brien made a diving save with his body, but the net was wide open for Lennon's putback.
The defeat, as much as it stung, did nothing to disparage what the Thunder were able to accomplish this season.
"(The season) was a success obviously," Rabasca said.
"Not everyone can win a state championship. Sixteen teams make the state tournament and 15 go home losers. I think Brophy is the best and we were probably second."
Senior Josh Greene, one of those who returned to the Thunder, said in time the season will be remembered for a long time.
"We came together and had a chance," he said. "We didn't play our best in a biggest game but we still had a chance until the end. We never gave in to anything."
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.
AFN staff writer Jason P. Skoda contributed to this story.