The Sunnyside boys soccer team has achieved a victory in 47 of its last 50 games dating to last season, which means coach Casey O’Brien has gathered his team together for a winning postgame talk that many times.
That includes the Blue Devils’ last five playoff appearances dating to the 5A state title run a year ago. The 3-0 victory for O’Brien’s No. 1-seeded team over No. 8 Queen Creek Casteel last night in a state quarterfinal match at Sunnyside was the latest win in that string. They are 23-1 after going 24-0-2 last season.
With such success, the gatherings after the victories are like business meetings. The Blue Devils revel in the win but don’t get caught up in them knowing the challenge that lies ahead in the state tournament.
“We had the expectation to win last year but maybe not everybody else did,” O’Brien said. “But now it feels that everybody has the expectation that we are going to win this year. … We know what it takes to win. We know we have the guys. We just have to put our best foot forward every night and really just give a good honest effort.”
O’Brien stresses to his team after all those wins the hard work it takes to be part of the juggernaut they have developed. The Blue Devils, one of the most fascinating success stories in Tucson high school sports history, have held on to every word.
“I know you guys have Rodeo Break now, but we need to keep working,” O’Brien told his players.
.@SunnysideHS coach Casey O’Brien looks at staying in Tucson for 5A state semifinals Saturday (at Mountain View) as way to “carry the torch” for soccer in Southern Arizona. If Blue Devils win that game, they will play again at Mountain View next Tuesday for another state title. pic.twitter.com/ZQNGgNONAP
O’Brien allowed his team to take the day off today but he stressed that they should keep their minds on soccer. He made it clear that they must be prepared for two hours of practice Friday ahead of Saturday’s 1 p.m. game at Mountain View against No. 4 seed Sunrise Mountain, which is 18-1 with its lone loss a 2-0 decision to No. 2 Glendale Ironwood on Jan. 28.
O’Brien also told his team the “good news” of staying in Tucson to face Sunrise Mountain, and if the Blue Devils win that game, they will remain in town and play at Mountain View for a repeat state championship next Tuesday.
“No more (nonsense) having to drive to Phoenix,” he told them, reflecting on last year when his unbeaten team was forced to drive to Scottsdale to play Gilbert Campo Verde in the state championship game.
“This is a big opportunity for a lot of people to come and watch us here,” said senior striker Adrian Burruel-Valenzuela, who scored two goals against Casteel. “We always travel a lot and it’s very tough for us. We just sit in the bus and go to Phoenix because that’s where everything’s at.
“Tucson’s a very small town and this opportunity they’ve given us to play in Tucson is great for us. It’s just a good environment for us to play here.”
Sunnyside striker Adrian Burruel-Valenzuela puts Sunnyside on the board at the 32nd minute. Blue Devils up 1-0. pic.twitter.com/lRVxaGMQiR
O’Brien views the chance to play in Tucson potentially in the final two rounds as a way to showcase soccer in the city.
Douglas, the No. 1 seed in the 4A state tournament, will play at Mountain View on Saturday at 11 a.m. against Phoenix Arcadia in a semifinal game.
.@SunnysideHS striker Adrian Burruel-Valenzuela had two goals in the Blue Devils’ 3-0 win over Casteel in the 5A quarterfinal match. He talks about the Blue Devils maintaining their championship-level play throughout his four years with the program. pic.twitter.com/8Vwz4cnqSy
“I know the soccer talent here is kind of undervalued, but it’s here,” O’Brien said. “It’s cool to carry that torch right now. … It’s cool to be the Tucson team right now that can play here, to represent us and the soccer scene we have in Tucson. We’re just happy to do it for everybody, honestly.”
Burruel-Valenzuela is one of 14 seniors on the 18-player Sunnyside roster. Demille Flores, a smooth forward with deft dribbling and passing skills, is one of the seniors who came to Tucson and Sunnyside from Belize.
Soft-spoken @SunnysideHS senior forward Demille Flores is one of those soccer talents you’ll hear about for years. Coach Casey O’Brien lauds his humble nature and being a “really good kid.” pic.twitter.com/JEqclBYq4g
He became exposed to Sunnyside’s program when he traveled to Phoenix two years ago for a Rush Select Program President’s Day tournament featuring top youth players from the world. College recruiters were allowed to attend.
Flores speaks confidently in the same manner as his aggressive style on the field. On many occasions he made defenders lose their footing because of his quickness and ability to stop the ball on a dime and immediately attack the goal or pass to a teammate. In his goal last night, he penetrated the box by eluding three defenders and the goalie for the score.
“I’m coming, so they’ve got to be prepared,” Flores said when asked about his mindset heading into Saturday’s semifinal game. “I know I’m a senior. I don’t want to lose, so I’m giving it my all.”
When asked about Sunnyside outscoring opponents 31-1 in its last six matches, Flores mentioned the team’s balance is a matter of the team’s forwards and defenders “looking out for each other.”
“We are not selfish. We distribute the ball to each other … I came out here and I did my part. My coach wanted me to do my best. I came out here and I do my best. I’m going to do it until the game is over.”
Flores, Burruel-Valenzuela and fellow senior forward Fabian Mendoza are a model of that unselfish play that Flores commented about. They have combined for 55 goals with Flores at the top with 19 and Burruel-Valenzuela and Mendoza each with 18. Mendoza leads the team with 20 assists and Flores is second with 12.
As good as Sunnyside is with its striking ability with that forward trio, the Blue Devils might be even better with their defense led by senior goaltender Jonathan De la Paz and midfield defenders Julio Lemas and Johnny Verdugo.
Senior defenders Juan Correa, Daniel Martinez, Hector Arce, Carlos Arias and Anthony Tamayo comprise an “unsung” group who have much to do with the Blue Devils’ success, according to O’Brien.
.@SunnysideHS boys soccer coach Casey O’Brien has coached the Blue Devils to a 47-1-2 record over the last two seasons, including a 5A state title last year. His defense and goalie Jonathan de la Paz have allowed only one goal in the last six matches (480 minutes). pic.twitter.com/xi255sqGuZ
“I think our defense is very underrated,” O’Brien said. “The last two years our defense has been solid and our backline is almost exactly what it was last year. We have a new (goal) keeper. But very, very underrated … they play very solid. They chase everything down. They’re out of position every once in a while but they make every effort possible to make sure that they get back and get to the ball and get bodies on people.”
About a half-hour after the game concluded last night, a majority of the team remained on the field. The seniors held on to their last moment on Sunnyside’s field, where they developed into one of the most dominating programs in the state in sports overall, not just soccer.
O’Brien looked over at the group and marveled at the fruits of their labor.
“This is a special group of guys,” he said. “The biggest thing to me is they are all good kids, a group this community, this city can be proud of.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.