Tucson High School Sports

Sunnyside Fights Through “Tough” Unbeaten Season and Wins 5A State Title

SCOTTSDALE — Drenched from Gatorade poured on him by his celebratory players, Sunnyside soccer coach Casey O’Brien said he was “cold as hell but it feels good” standing on the Coronado High School field in 40-degree temperatures talking to reporters.

The discomfort to go with the euphoric feeling describes Sunnyside’s 24-0-2 season, capped by the school’s first state soccer title, a dominating 4-0 win over Campo Verde on Wednesday night.

Junior midfielder Fabian Mendoza scored Sunnyside’s first two goals by the 21-minute mark and senior midfielders Adrian Virgen and Manuel Quiroz also scored. Sunnyside goalie Jesus Gutierrez and the solid defense around him, including captain Julio Lemas and Juan Correa, helped the Blue Devils achieve their 12th shutout of the season.

Sunnyside’s soccer team and coach Casey O’Brien hold the 5A state championship trophy up high (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Asked about how he would describe the season, O’Brien did not go into hyperbole despite the unbeaten record and lofty regional and national rankings.

Sunnyside is ranked No. 9 among Arizona, California and Hawaii programs by USA Today. The Blue Devils are No. 16 nationally as ranked by MaxPreps.

“It’s been a long season, man,” said O’Brien, who started administering practices before Thanksgiving. “It’s been a long year. It’s been hard to build this. It’s been hard to work for this.

“It’s been hard to fight through things. It’s been tough, it’s been tough. It’s been a long year, man. Tough, tough year. 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.”

Asked to elaborate, O’Brien said, “There’s been a lot of problems. The kids have been having a lot of struggles. Their families have been having a lot of struggles. I’ve been having my struggles. I mean, it seems like everybody everyday has something going on that we just had to get past.”

Some family members have passed away. Some have moved away. Many of the players come from families struggling to get by on the southside. On top of that, they must stay on top of their studies while trying to excel as a soccer team.

Keep in mind, most of them range from only 15 to 17 years old and they must help their parents or guardians at home a great deal while keeping up at school

Cold as hell but it feels good.

“I think this right here will put us in the right direction for all of our futures,” O’Brien added. “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 celebrates its first state title in soccer (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

If Wednesday’s match against No. 3 Campo Verde for the top-seeded Blue Devils is an indication, O’Brien’s players have the ability to focus and turn a potential disaster into dominance.

In the first five minutes, two dangerous attempts at the goal by Campo Verde — the first somehow not getting through bouncing right at the line of the goal — was a wakeup call for the Blue Devils. On the other attempt, Sunnyside goalie Jesus Gutierrez had to dive at the ball to prevent it from getting through.

“It was matter of telling them to open their eyes and realize they were on the field and doing the same thing they’ve been doing,” O’Brien said. “Most of these guys have been playing since they were 4 or 5 years old.

“They forgot for the first five minutes how to play the game. Once Fabian scored, everybody realized what we were doing. They came back to earth.”

Sunnyside forward Fabian Mendoza scored two goals in the state title match (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Mendoza was a terror for Campo Verde to handle with his speed and footwork coming off the edge.

At the 17-minute mark, he became free in the middle about 15 feet from the goal and scored off the ricochet of a save by the Coyotes’ goalie. Five minutes later, he ran past defenders and eluded the goalie with a kick to the corner of the net.

“I didn’t expect them,” Mendoza said of the goals, his 12th and 13th of the season. “They just came.”

Campo Verde obviously did not expect them either. The Coyotes were also befuddled by Virgen’s curving penalty from 30 feet away that somehow found the inside of the goal for the score, giving Sunnyside a 3-0 lead at the 27-minute mark.

“(The shot) was unbelievable … I kicked it just right,” said Virgen, who had 22 goals and 24 assists this season.

Mendoza and Virgen joined the Sunnyside soccer program for the first time this year after playing only on club teams previously. The trend in youth sports is the opposite with standouts thinking club teams lead to greater individual success.

It’s a testament to Sunnyside and O’Brien that Mendoza and Virgen stuck to the Blue Devils. They avoided the temptation of breaking AIA rules, which prevent athletes from practicing and playing with a club team during a season.

“It’s my first year meeting a couple of the guys and we’ve created some great friendships,” Virgen said. “We’re more like family now with some of my best friends. It’s great.”

The last goal came at the 75-minute mark by Quiroz, a fitting end to his Sunnyside career after leading the Blue Devils with 39 goals this season. He also had 22 assists.

“That’s why he is so balanced with how many goals and assists he has, because when they put too much pressure on him, he’s so smart he knows to pass,” O’Brien said. “He trusts his teammates and he gives it up. He’s an unselfish kid.

“You would think by his stats that maybe he is hungry for the goal and he doesn’t pass the ball but in a game like that tonight, when he knows he has double coverage basically all game long, he gives it up willingly. … With his vision and his IQ, he’s a phenomenal player. I really hope somebody (a college soccer program) takes a chance and takes that kid in because he deserves it.”

The long season, as O’Brien calls it, is over gloriously after it began with the first practice three months ago at a “ramshackle field over by Sunnyside, but we loved it,” he said.

Cold as hell but it feels good.

“It’s crazy but that first practice was pretty dang good,” said O’Brien, who has coached at Sunnyside for four years. “We had a lot of great players on the field in that practice. It was 11 on 11. It was a highly competitive game. … We put talent on the field against ourselves. Our practices are some of the most intense games I have ever seen. Day One was great.

“Today is better.”


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.

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