A few minutes after his team lost in the 5A state title match against Carl Hayden tonight, Sunnyside coach Casey O’Brien walked up to three players on the Blue Devils’ junior varsity team and told them, “Practice Thursday. Be ready.”
“I don’t want this to happen again.”
“This” is losing, which is uncommon for the Blue Devils, especially over the last two seasons. Their record the last two years is 48-2-2, including an unbeaten season last year in which they won the school’s first state soccer title.
“Two losses in two years, that’s all you guys have on your record,” he told his players after the 3-0 loss to Carl Hayden at Mountain View High School. “Unfortunately, we took one loss in the biggest game of this season. Oh well. … It’s over. We have bigger and better things to move on to in our lives. Do you understand?
“I’m super proud of you guys. I love you guys.”
Sunnyside coach Casey O’Brien complimented his 13-member senior class for taking the Blue Devils from “scraping by” to becoming nationally ranked. The Blue Devils are an elite program to stay because of what they built, he said. O’Brien deserves a heck of a lot of the credit too. pic.twitter.com/C2l59svHtC
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) February 26, 2020
O’Brien said he wants his players to get back on the practice field as soon as possible because “a lot of these guys have a lot to look forward to in their careers.”
The 13 seniors on Sunnyside’s roster will be on the field Thursday although their last game with the Blue Devils is behind them. O’Brien estimates at least seven of them will be highlighted in an upcoming ceremony at the school in which they will sign their college letters of intent.
“A lot of people think we’re going to be down next year losing 13 seniors,” O’Brien said. “But I obviously think quite differently. We have a ton of good kids at our school. Ton of great workers. I think they are going to keep Sunnyside what we are right now.”
If anybody believes Sunnyside will slip because the senior forward trio of Demille Flores, Adrian Burruel-Valenzuela and Fabian Mendoza (an incredible 60 goals among them) is not returning, think of this:
Sunnyside’s JV team went undefeated.
Sunnyside’s freshman team did not lose.
O’Brien is making players who in the past would rather compete for their club team want to play for his program. It’s the same kind of appeal Dennis Bene built with the Salpointe football program for players and parents alike over the last couple of decades.
“He’s a good coach,” Flores said of O’Brien. “He motivates you.”
Flores is a Belize native who became enamored with Sunnyside’s program when he visited Arizona two years ago with a youth team from his country.
Deft with the ball, leaving many defenders in his wake, Flores is one of those seven or so Sunnyside seniors who will move on to the next level. His skillset will likely take him beyond college into the pro ranks.
Another of the many names to keep track of in years to come is Mendoza, who had two goals in last year’s state championship win over Campo Verde at Scottsdale.
“Regardless if we won or lost I would still feel the same of being part of this team,” Mendoza said.
Sunnyside had many sequences in the second half when a goal was almost scored but mostly Flores, Burruel-Valenzuela and Mendoza were denied by goaltender Edwin Niebla and the Carl Hayden defenders — the best group Sunnyside has seen from this state this season.
Senior captain Kevin Noria is an ultraquick forward with tremendous control and that showed with his two goals, one a 25-foot shot off the run perfectly placed into the top corner of the net, too high for goalie Jonathan De la Paz to get a hand on, only three minutes into the game.
The last Carl Hayden goal was scored by another senior captain, defender Carlos Sagaste, in the last minute. Up until that point, Sunnyside’s players were relentless, tumbling to the ground many times, limping, trying all they could to sway the momentum their way.
“Our kids never backed down from the challenge,” O’Brien said of the season overall. “Honestly, they built this program. They made it something that — who knows? — could be around for a long time.”
In many ways, Sunnyside saw a mirror of itself in Carl Hayden, which captured its first state soccer title similar to what the Blue Devils did last year.
The school is located close to downtown Phoenix in an area with a predominant Hispanic population, similar to Sunnyside on the southside of Tucson. Many of the players compete on club teams throughout the year. They have played soccer since elementary school.
They have an ardent following with many family members in attendance. The stands on the east side of the field at Mountain View were full of fans equally split between Sunnyside and Carl Hayden supporters.
Carl Hayden’s coach Abner Calderon commented about the historic win much like O’Brien does about his team bringing pride to his school’s “community.”
“It was not a rivalry about Sunnyside — we never played them before,” Calderon said. “It was about us. It was about us challenging ourselves and doing our best. It wasn’t about Sunnyside.
“It could have been anybody, and that’s no disrespect to them. They are very good, a tremendous team. We wanted it, not in an egotistical way. We wanted it more for us, for the school, for the community. That weighted more in our hearts.”
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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.