Call them The Fresh Connection.
In a game littered with opportunities for both teams, it was an early second-half goal in the 46th minute that proved to be the difference as fourth-seeded Gilbert Highland defeated No. 5 Phoenix Mountain Pointe, 1-0, Saturday to send the higher-seeded Hawks to the Class 5A-I state semifinals.
The score came when Highland freshman Jaden DeGracie’s summersault throw-in into a heavy traffic-jam in front of the Mountain Pointe goal was knocked in off the head of fellow freshman Ashley Hatch.
“It’s such a weapon,” said Highland coach Jon Berzins of DeGracie’s skill on throw-ins. “She put it right where she needed to.”
Mountain Pointe coach Mark Wilson said that the Pride, who were playing the Hawks for the third time already this season, were wary of DeGracie’s ability to acrobatically propel the ball further than most players her age. Wilson said Mountain Pointe moved nine players back toward the net to help if the ball came in hot – which it did.
The Mountain Pointe contingent had initially argued that DeGracie’s throw-in crossed the goal line before Hatch knocked it in. Throw-ins, because they are initiated off the field of play, must be touched before crossing the goal to count.
But the officials said otherwise, letting what would wind up being the game’s lone goal stand.
“We put 10 back there for that reason,” Wilson said. “We knew what they were going to try. We thought the ball went in before (Hatch) touched it, but they didn’t wave it off.”
Berzins said that having his two freshman starters – the rest of his starting lineup Saturday was made up of one sophomore, two juniors and six seniors – connect for the goal was actually more telling of the Hawks’ senior leadership than anything else.
“The diversity of our roster, I’m just so excited about that,” Berzins said. “Our senior class has done such an amazing job of leadership. With a large amount of freshmen (seven total), I couldn’t have asked for a better senior class of how we do it here and how we go about our business … and I really think that’s going to carry over for the next four years.”
The loss ends Mountain Pointe’s season with a 16-7 overall record. Wilson, who coached the Pride to a state title two years ago in his first season as coach, said that while it doesn’t mean the season wasn’t successful, it’s difficult to see his team head home while others are still playing.
“We think we’re good enough to go further,” he said. “It’s hard, but that’s how soccer is sometimes ... 1-0 like this.”
Highland (21-2-2), who defeated the Pride three times this season, including Saturday, will face another familiar opponent in the semifinals in top-seeded Phoenix Xavier. The Hawks defeated the Gators earlier this season, 3-2, however Berzins said that he expects a different Xavier team than the one it defeated back in December. The Gators have yet to lose to an in-state team since falling to Highland.