Tucson High School Sports

Sunnyside Up: Blue Devils boys soccer on mission to reclaim state title

Sunnyside outscored Sabino and Marana 11-0 in its first two boys soccer games with eight different players scoring, but what has pleased coach Casey O’Brien the most is the Blue Devils’ defense.

“Everybody talks about the goals that have been scored, but what I’m impressed with the most so far is how we’ve defended,” said O’Brien, who has an 85-12-5 record in his fifth year in the program after Thursday’s 5-0 win at Marana.

“The defense really is what will carry us.”

Sunnyside fifth-year coach Casey O’Brien instructs his team at halftime (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

In the decisive wins over Sabino and Marana on back-to-back days, Sunnyside has allowed only three shots on goal, two of them by Marana “and they weren’t serious attempts,” O’Brien said.

Two of Sunnyside’s defenders are symbolic of the Blue Devils’ productive mix of veterans and younger players.

Senior Elian Robles, who made a goal against Marana off a header from Joaquin Escalante’s corner kick, and freshman Sebastian Barrios carry equal significance.

Midfielder Ivan Felix, midfielder/defenders Eddie Loya and Hansel Urias and goalie Jorge Arvayo are sophomores playing major roles on O’Brien’s team now and will have two more seasons after this one to continue making Sunnyside one of the most dominant programs in the state.

“This is one of my younger teams especially after having all those seniors the last two years,” said O’Brien, referring to the 2018-19 Class 5A state champion team that featured Manuel Quiroz and Adrian Virgen and last year’s state runner-up team that had Demille Flores, Fabian Mendoza and Adrian Burruel-Valenzuela.

Those five players combined for an incredible total of 121 goals as seniors.

Defensively, O’Brien’s seniors the last two seasons have also been impressive, including last year’s group of goaltender Jonathan De la Paz and defenders Juan CorreaDaniel Martinez, Hector ArceCarlos Arias and Anthony Tamayo. Two seasons ago, Ulysses Torres-Palacios, Jesus Barrios and Jesus Valdez-Rios were senior standout defenders.

Two seniors have joined this season’s team as transfers from Douglas, which is not participating in winter sports because of COVID-19 health safety concerns. Per AIA rules, players can transfer and be eligible immediately if their school does not compete.

Escalante, a midfielder, and striker Miguel Sosa were part of the Bulldogs’ team last season that went 19-3-1 and reached the Class 4A state semifinals. Sosa had 27 goals and nine assists and Escalante produced nine goals and three assists.

Against Marana on Thursday, Escalante and Sosa scored their first goals with the Blue Devils. Escalante added two assists.

Joaquin Escalante (14) is a talented transfer from Douglas (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

“It’s a great experience; really good guys,” Escalante said of his experience with the team after transferring to Sunnyside last week. “I have a lot of fun with them in practice. During the games, I feel like we’re getting along really fast. It’s a good experience.”

The infusion of younger talent and having newcomers such as Escalante and Sosa creates an area of opportunity for Sunnyside with its “communication,” Escalante said.

“After we fix that, we should be unstoppable,” he said.

Marana’s Josh Tschida (right) and Sunnyside’s Jimmy Batega battle over the ball (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

One of the underclassmen who is vocal and leads by example is junior midfielder Jhonny Verdugo, who had two goals against Marana after scoring once against Sabino.

Verdugo has already played 41 varsity games dating to his freshman season. He has the opportunity to earn the distinction of being a four-year player who reached the state title game in all those years.

He is halfway to that goal with the intent to win three state titles.

Verdugo appeared to be robbed of that goal when the AIA pulled the plug on winter sports earlier this month because of COVID-19 concerns. Within a week after a public uproar, however, the high school sports governing body reversed its decision.

“Everybody was kind of upset, especially the seniors,” Verdugo said when the cancelation of winter sports was announced. “I have a couple of friends who are seniors. It sucked because I really want to finish off the year with them and leave on a positive note.

“Now that we have it, we just have to be grateful. At least we have the opportunity to keep playing.”

Verdugo’s three goals in two games this season almost equals the four he produced in 14 games last year.

“We came up short last year, which sucks, but we have to keep our heads up and keep working,” he said. “Hopefully it (a state title) is there because I feel like the whole team is there. Everybody is motivated for it.”

Marana’s soccer team with coach Tim Johnson kept the game scoreless in the second half with goalkeeper David Trejo making a couple of tremendous saves (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)


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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