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.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Third straight soccer title well within reach of Gators

 Just when you think you’ve seen every way a team can win a soccer match and championship, around the corner come Xavier Prep’s Gators.

They never seem to run out of ways to take ownership of the title trophy, using an emotional approach, yet staying calm at the same time.

Xavier has won 12 state titles (seven under current coach Barb Chura), including two in a row, with four runner-up finishes (one under Chura).

And this year’s group is ready to show everyone that it can do it again. The 2022-23 season begins on Dec. 1 with a match against Tempe Corona del Sol at XCP’s remodeled Petznick Field.

“We look good,’’ Chura said.

The team appears to have a good mix of experience and youth. There are 10 seniors, four juniors, three sophomores and seven freshmen, the most since the record 13 first-year players in 2009.

Xavier is prolific up front, sturdy in the middle and along the back, and has a rising star goalkeeper in junior Kate Willmering.

Chura was uncertain about what to do a year ago at this time, looking for someone, anyone, to take up the keeping duties. It was a tough sell, because star Jaden Campbell had graduated after the Gators won the title the year before.

While it obviously was not the same as having Campbell back there deflecting incoming shots, Chura had the next best thing when Campbell became a volunteer assistant coach, one that she continues this winter as the goalkeeper whisperer.

Campbell worked with Willmering throughout the season, and Willmering blossomed at just the right time – in the state tournament.

In the state final, she turned away shot after shot that led to a 0-0 deadlock and resulting shootout against Gilbert Perry.

“She had the game of her life,’’ Chura said. “A lot of the time, she was flying horizontal.’’

With the score tied at 2 in the second shootout, Xavier went on to win it 3-2 on a goal by senior defender (yes, defender) Jayme Brown.

Brown’s sister, Ally, now a sophomore and listed as a midfielder and defender, returns to see if she has the same familial magic running through her veins.

Senior Bella Leonard (Xavier photo).

Meanwhile, senior forward Larkin Thomason and senior midfielder Bella Leonard will continue their chart-topping offense. Thomason joined the team last year and Leonard is best remembered for her long-range goal that traveled seemingly half the length of the field and landed behind the Perry goalkeeper for a 1-0 win on the final play of regulation in the 2021 semis.

Senior Larkin Thomason.

But don’t think it was just all luck. Leonard perhaps is the team most fundamentally sound player and has led to a recent national letter of intent signing with Notre Dame.

“This is crazy. I’m really excited to be with this team for another season,’’ Leonard said. “After what happened the year before, we were under a lot of pressure last season and we worked very hard and came through.

“I want to leave my mark as a team leader with this team and show the pride that it takes.’’

Said Thomason, “It’s about having the right people in the right places. It’s realistic to put the standard pretty high to win some games and a state title.’’

Like Leonard, Thomason would like to be called upon for leadership.

“When I was a younger player, there were older players who were leaders and I decided I want to be that kind of player,’’ she said.

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