DON KETCHUM is a native of Phoenix. He was a sportswriter for The Arizona Republic/The Phoenix Gazette for nearly four decades. He covered high school sports on several occasions as well as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State sports. From 2008-14, he was a staff writer for, the web site of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

In soccer semis, XCP shows it's better than good

 There are good soccer teams, and there are the ones who raise their play to another level, especially when it counts the most.

Put Xavier Prep’s Gators in the latter category.

They rode another strong all-around performance to the brink of winning their second straight 6A Conference state championship with a 3-0 victory over Peoria Liberty in a semifinal match on Saturday (Feb. 19) at Gilbert Campo Verde.

By now, everyone knows that Xavier’s No. 9 seeding was slightly askew. They had to “qualify’’ for the state tournament with a “play-in’’ victory over Tolleson High, then defeated No. 8 Queen Creek, stunned top-ranked Scottsdale Chaparral and took care of No. 4 Liberty to earn another big chance at the big dance.

Xavier (11-3-2) will play third-seeded Gilbert Perry (11-1-1) for the title on Wednesday (Feb. 23) at Campo Verde, with a 5 p.m. start. Perry advanced with a 2-1 win over No. 2 Phoenix Desert Vista.

Xavier tied Perry 3-3 on Jan. 25, and Perry will be seeking to avenge a 1-0 loss to Xavier in last year’s semifinals on a high-arching 40-yard goal by Bella Leonard on the game’s final play. The miracle video was shown across the country on ESPN as part of the network’s top 10 plays of the day.

In Xavier’s Saturday semi, XCP took a 1-0 lead just 2:45 into the game on a goal by Leonard, now a junior. Then the Gators turned up the heat on their pressure defense.

Liberty rarely got close enough to even try a shot.

There was a corner kick and two throw-ins with about 13 minutes left in the first half.

With two minutes to go before the break, a Xavier defender knocked away a Liberty shot in front of the goal when Xavier keeper Kate Willmering was a bit out of place, and Willmering was back to stop another shot shortly thereafter.

Willmering, a sophomore, figured prominently in all of Xavier’s tournament shutouts, and on Saturday got help from junior Sarah Castlen, who worked the final two minutes.

Xavier continued to search for a two-goal cushion, and almost got it with 26 minutes left in the contest. Leonard set up junior Larkin Thomason with a beautiful pass, but the shot was just off and hit the goalpost.

Leonard tallied an assist on a goal by sophomore Madison Schenk with 23:27 left for the two-goal lead, and Thomason put the game on ice with a goal with 9:33 remaining.

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