On the back of Sunnyside coach Casey O’Brien’s shirt on Saturday, during the Blue Devils’ 5A state semifinal match with Peoria Sunrise Mountain, the word “SOUTHSIDE” was strongly visible.
The game was on the far northwest side of Tucson, at Mountain View High School at Marana. O’Brien and the Blue Devils brought their resolve from the other side of the tracks.
They have the opportunity to defend their title in the 5A state championship match Tuesday night at 6 against Phoenix Carl Hayden. The match will again be at Mountain View.
The rallying cry for the Blue Devils under O’Brien since he took over the program in 2016 is one of making believers out of young players who face tough odds coming from the barrios on the southside near Sunnyside.
Before Sunnyside played Queen Creek Casteel in a quarterfinal match last week on the Blue Devils’ natural turf, which is mixed with dirt and dead grass spots, a referee commented about the condition of the soccer balls the Blue Devils were using.
“The guys practice with them quite a bit on this field, so they are a little rough,” said O’Brien, who also is Sunnyside’s athletic director. “That’s how things are around here.”
O’Brien tries to stress to his soccer team and to other students at the southside school that it is not an unrealistic plan to be successful coming from modest means.
“These same situations keep coming up with some of the kids at the school — deportation issues, kids getting into trouble, just kids not having support at home, having no finances, having nobody that talks about college around them,” O’Brien told me before the season. “I’ve been running into the same issues every single year now. So when they pop up, I finally have kind of an answer because I’ve done it and I can say, ‘Hey remember this guy? Remember what we did with him? Remember where he went or where he didn’t go?
“Now, we actually have examples that are relevant to them. So it’s working out really well. This is my fifth year at Sunnyside, so now the people that I talk about, they know, because they are people that stick out in their mind. If I tell them a story about a kid, that name makes sense to them and they know where that kid’s at now because this community is so tight knit. A lot of kids that we had didn’t necessarily live up to their potential and now they see that. I think that they’re starting to see what they can do for themselves to get past that.”
Sunnyside Boys Soccer Leaders
One of O’Brien’s former pupils at Lauffer Middle School and Sunnyside, Anay Garcia, who practiced exclusively last season with the boys team, left last summer to attend The Master’s University in California on a soccer scholarship knowing her mom faced the possibility of deportation.
“O’Brien’s the one who kept me on track. He’s the one who set all my goals, like making sure I had straight A’s,” said Anay, who carried a 4.0 GPA throughout her high school years. “We used to do like three practices a day (with the boys team). He always made sure I was on top of everything and that I succeeded in everything.
“I always strive to be better than average.”
The way the program has surged into national prominence the last two years — 48-1-2 in that stretch — shows the players are getting the most out of their ability and meshing well with their depth.
O’Brien has drawn elite players such as senior forward Demille Flores, a top youth talent out of Belize. He has bucked the trend of athletes wanting to play more for their club team than their high school.
Some of the Blue Devils, including prolific-scoring striker Adrian Burruel-Valenzuela and defender Carlos Arias, are members of the Tucson Aztecs youth club team.
They follow the lead of last year’s top players who each scored a goal for Sunnyside in the state title game against Campo Verde — Manuel Quiroz and Adrian Virgen. That duo stopped playing with their club teams in order to be eligible for Sunnyside. They joined O’Brien’s program for one season before graduating.
Fabian Mendoza is another Sunnyside player who grew up playing club soccer and is now most proud of his Blue Devil accomplishments. The senior had two goals in last year’s title game and produced three in Saturday’s win over Sunrise Mountain, a team that had not allowed more than two goals in a game all season.
The emergence of Flores in his lone season with the Blue Devils and Burruel-Valenzuela, in place of Quiroz and Virgen, and the dominance of Mendoza have kept Sunnyside the best attacking team in the state. Veteran defenders such as Arias, Carlos Frias, Anthony Tamayo and Carlos Vasquez matched with the goaltending of senior Jonathan De la Paz have combined for the top defense in the state.
De la Paz has replaced the graduated Jesus Gutierrez in the net and Sunnyside has not skipped a beat. In fact, the Blue Devils have 19 shutouts this season compared to 12 a season ago.
After the 4-0 win over Campo Verde for the state title last year, O’Brien mentioned it was a “long season” because of what his players had to endure off the field at home and at school.
“Tough, tough year,” he said. “There’s been a lot going on. It’s just very rewarding just because of what’s been going on around us all year long.”
O’Brien paused to wipe some of the Gatorade splashed on him by his team in the 40-degree temperature at Scottsdale.
“It’s cold as hell but it feels good,” he said. “I think this right here will put us in the right direction for all of our futures. It’s going to make the kids hungry for success, not just soccer.
“This is going to change lives because this will make us focused for the more important things in life.”
Sunnyside gets another opportunity to experience the fulfillment of a state title when the Blue Devils take on Carl Hayden (22-2) in the championship. The southside team heads to the northside once again with the match at Mountain View. A second time around in the title match has them believing they are Tucson’s team, not only that of the southside.
“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,” O’Brien said. “We’re just happy to do it for everybody, honestly.”
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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.