Just two weeks ago, Trent Elliott stood in front of his Desert Vista boys soccer program, pleading for answers.
The Thunder were just minutes removed from a 3-0 loss to Hamilton on their home field, the same team that knocked them out of the 6A semifinals in 2019. It was Desert Vista’s second straight loss, as the team fell to Kofa by a single goal.
The loss to the Huskies is the seventh this year for the Thunder, the most since Elliott took over as head coach in 2014.
“We’ve had moments where it worked out well but as we got into region play and play teams like Hamilton, they have to figure it out,” Elliott said. “We’re working through it. Senior leaders are trying to step up and get it done.
“When you have young guys getting a lot of time, they have to figure it out, too.”
Since that Jan. 21 night, after Elliott challenged his senior leaders to do a little soul searching to find the team’s identity, the Thunder won two straight matches, including one in overtime, over a Highland squad ranked higher.
As of now, it seems his message resonated with his players.
“It’s all about expectations,” Elliott said. “When you get to this point in the season, I think sometimes in practice there is a different mindset. We have to maintain the level of knowing there is still work to be done.”
Desert Vista climbed in rank after losing to Hamilton. The Thunder currently rank 10th in the Arizona Interscholastic Association 6A rankings with two regular-season games remaining.
Last Friday, Desert Vista defeated rival Mountain Pointe. Last night, the Thunder took on Corona del Sol. They will face Queen Creek to close out the regular season on Friday.
Despite a rough start to the year, Desert Vista seems to be hitting its stride at the right time. Closing out the year with wins would be the sixth straight year Elliott went undefeated in region play.
This, alone, is one of Desert Vista’s eight goals it set before the season began. Even with a tough start, six goals are still in reach, including winning a state title.
“We’ve been there. We know what it feels like to hold a trophy and win a championship,” Desert Vista defender Vincent Larente said. “We want it again, but the younger guys aren’t there yet. We have to keep pushing them during practice and during games to get to where we want to be at the end of the season.”
Larente stepped in as a starting defender and captain this season for Desert Vista. He takes over as one of four new starters in the Thunder’s back line, arguably where the team is its strongest.
Desert Vista’s previous group of starting defenders were with the team since their freshmen season, building the program up to its prolific status in 2018, when it defeated Brophy in the 6A title game. The adjustment wasn’t easy for Larente or anyone else on the team, especially given Desert Vista went from 15 seniors last year – most were starters – to just seven.
There came an opportunity for Larente and other senior captains to watch and observe.
Even now, late in the season, they admit they’re still trying to get a foothold on how to lead the younger players.
“We have to be supportive, but we have to push them at the same time,” said striker Jonny Munoz, another senior captain. “We’ve both been on varsity for a while now. The new guys, they aren’t necessarily used to the varsity level or the standard. We have to make them confident to be able play and support them.”
Munoz alongside Larente and goalkeeper Chandler Hanscome were named captians - as they are the most experienced returning players.
As a junior, Munoz scored six goals.
Following the loss to Hamilton, the three captains called a team meeting on the field. They emphasized the need for everyone, both young and old, to step up in practice and games if they wanted to continue their quest for another state title.
Elliott and his three captains know what the team is capable of. They showed flashes of strong play after returning from the Adidas West Coast tournament in California this past December, where they lost three straight. The Thunder went 6-1 in a seven-match stretch back in Arizona, but then lost the two matches leading the team searching for its identity.
“We used the first tournament in Cali, which was a little rough, to kind of learn each other’s movements and play,” Munoz said. “Now we just have to get back to where we were after that when we came back to Arizona.”
Desert Vista entered the last week of the season with a legitimate shot at hosting a first-round tournament game and avoid the play-in tournament, yet another one of the team goals.
The players understand the impact it would have on both the program and school should they be able to make a run in the playoffs. To them, it would be like adding the school’s legacy of success in athletics.
“Our school is known for all of our sports succeeding,” Larente said. “Most of our team, we’ve been playing soccer since we were little. We have the heart and we want to go out there and put everything we have on the field.”