FARMINGTON — A year after falling short in the state championship game, the Aztec Lady Tigers made it all the way back to earn a shot at the first girls' soccer state title in school history.
Wins against No. 11 Piedra Vista and No. 2 Farmington sent the Lady Tigers to their second consecutive state title game. A year after falling short to Albuquerque Academy 3-1, Aztec was again unable to come away with a win, this time falling 2-1 to St. Pius X at the APS Soccer Complex in Albuquerque on Saturday.
"We battled and fought with a lot of heart. The girls wanted it. We played a great game, and I am extremely proud of them," said Aztec head coach Stephen Parks.
Twenty-two minutes into the game, Aztec (20-3) went down 1-0 when St. Pius X captain Caitlin Fattor tapped in a goal past Aztec goalkeeper Elana Kresl after Kresl was unable to control a ball in front of her net.
"That is what can happen in the blink of an eye," Parks said. "We mishandled the ball, and it got away from us. To (Fattor's) credit, she was ready and kicked it in. That is soccer. I think Elana played an incredible game. It is just unfortunate we lost."
St. Pius X (22-1) controlled the rest of the half and took a 1-0 lead into halftime.
Aztec came out firing in the second half and put a lot of pressure on the Sartan defenders. The Lady Tigers were looking to pass a ball in the St. Pius X 18-yard box when the ball hit a Sartans' defender in the hand. The referee signaled for Aztec to take a penalty kick.
Aztec senior Jessica Kresl stepped up to take the penalty kick, and she sent a soft shot low and to the right side of the goal past St. Pius X goalkeeper Tatiana Sarracino. The goal tied the game 1-1 with 11 minutes left in regulation.
"That was very exciting. I think we were honestly a little bit down because we couldn't score. When we tied it with them, it gave us a burst of energy," said Aztec senior captain Kayli Farmer.
The game became more physical after the Aztec goal. St. Pius X attacked Aztec with more urgency and eventually forced Aztec into a big penalty.
St. Pius X freshman striker Tatiana Limon went after a ball in Aztec's 18-yard box and was contacted by a slew of Aztec defenders. Limon went to the ground, and the referee blew his whistle and awarded St. Pius X a penalty kick for the takedown in the box.
St. Pius X junior midfielder Amanda Hernandez took the penalty kick and scored past Elana Kresl for a late go-ahead goal with just eight minutes left in regulation.
"What can you do? That is a judgment call on the ref's part, and he made the call," Parks said. "We tied to battle back to see if we could equalize, but it was tough because we weren't getting shots off late. We couldn't get back in it."
Aztec fell to St. Pius X 4-1 on Oct. 5. Saturday's improved performance was satisfying for Parks.
"After the first time we saw them, I wanted the girls to come out and prove to the whole state we deserved to be there," Parks said. "We played a completely different game than the first time they saw us. I talked to St. Pius coach (David) Sullivan after the game, and he was very complimentary. Our girls have a lot to be proud of."
Aztec has finished as the 4A state runner-up two years in a row. The 2012 state title game appearance was the first in Aztec Lady Tiger history.
"It is a very big accomplishment for us. A lot of people thought we wouldn't make it here. To prove them wrong is really nice," Farmer said. "Being with the team has been amazing, and coming this far as seniors is something we won't forget."
The Lady Tigers lose five seniors from this year's team and return a wealth of starters and experienced players to next year's squad. Parks is confident his team can reach the state title game again in 2014.
"I feel like the program is right there. We are doing great and have a great group of girls coming back and coming into the program next year," he said. "We will be competitive for several more years to come. We have to compete with the Albuquerque private schools, and that is what it is. We just have to continue to grow and get better, and eventually we will get that win."John Livingston can be reached at email@example.com; 505-564-4648. Follow him on Twitter @jlivi2.