The Mountain Pointe boys soccer team was repeatedly counted out in 2021.
They were expected to be in a major rebuilding year and doubted by many to have even a glimmer of success during a season in which the number of games was limited along with the playoff field due to COVID-19. And while head coach Willie Molina admits it was in fact a time for the Pride to rebuild, they did so while exceeding expectations.
Mountain Pointe finished No. 17 overall in 6A — one spot short of a playoff berth — and third in its region. But even while falling short of the postseason, the young Pride team set themselves up for success in the immediate future.
“This season was an exciting way to see them play the sport,” Molina said. “We only had 22 kids tryout and most don’t play club outside of school. Just to see these kids get an opportunity to play and perform, the future is exciting.
“We’re a young team and we as coaches believe Mountain Pointe can be a good starting point for other young players.”
Mountain Pointe finished 5-6-1 overall on the season and faced a variety of playoff-bound teams.
Seven of the Pride’s opponents this year were part of the top-16 that made it to the 6A tournament, including second-ranked Chaparral, third-ranked Brophy and fifth-ranked Chandler. Mountain Pointe also faced off against its rival, Desert Vista, the No. 8 team in the conference.
Molina said his team battled on a nightly basis no matter who the opponent was. The tough schedule also forced many of his younger players to step up earlier than expected in their high school soccer careers.
Mountain Pointe’s roster was made up of five seniors, seven juniors, five sophomore and five freshmen. The limited number of experienced veterans forced those with little playing time to find their way on the pitch.
Not to mention, the Pride were without a junior varsity team this year. That forced players who normally would take a year or two to develop to do so in an expedited way.
“In the beginning, it was hard,” Molina said. “Some of these freshmen are 14 and they’re playing against kids that are 18, grown men. That’s the crazy part about high school. I told them they would normally play JV but under the circumstances this season they had to play varsity.
“They stepped up. They played some of these top schools and you could tell they were timid in the beginning but once the season got going, they got comfortable and showcased their skills.”
Molina credits much of the team’s success this season to the buy-in from players, their willingness to face adversity head on and the overall chemistry. Much of that chemistry stems from Molina making the soccer team a family affair. His assistants consist of his father, Miguel, and two younger brothers, Omar and Hector. His third younger brother, Nathan, is a senior goalkeeper for the Pride.
That family camaraderie transferred to the rest of the Mountain Pointe players, who also expected a rebuilding year. But as true leaders, the seniors stepped up.
They realized they could help set a strong foundation for the program moving forward. To them, that was about the strongest legacy they could leave with the Pride.
“Talking to them, they thought they would come in and not perform,” Molina said. “But ending the way we did, one spot away from playoffs while playing top schools and winning some big games, it showed these seniors worked hard. I think they all left happy and excited with what they left behind. They were short on numbers but still had an opportunity to make the playoffs.
“I think the seniors believe, ‘hey, this is what we left now it’s up to you guys to take it from here next season.’”
In a normal, non-COVID year, Mountain Pointe’s No. 17 ranking would earn it a spot in the 6A Conference play-in tournament at the very least. But with a reduced schedule and shortened season overall, the Arizona Interscholastic Association eliminated play-in games for the three large conferences.
While there was some obvious disappointment with not making the playoffs, Molina said his players, parents and everyone else involved realized the giant leap forward the program took during a difficult season. They set the stage for more young players to come through the program and return a large majority of their starters from this season.
Overall, Molina has high hopes for the Mountain Pointe program, and he is helping build momentum to reach new heights next year.
“Just with how well we performed, I’m definitely looking forward to the next few years to come,” Molina said. “These younger kids coming into the program and the ones who will continue to build it are setting up the program for success.”