PEORIA — The ride back to Tucson on Saturday was a grueling one for the No. 10 Catalina Foothills boys soccer team after being eliminated in the first round of the 5A state playoffs by No. 7 Sunrise Mountain on the road.
The Mustangs brought the heat, fighting to a 2-0 win and advancing to the quarterfinals.
For Falcons Coach Greg Whitney, it was a tough way to have the season come to a close.
“They always play hard, every game,” Whitney said. “Sometimes it doesn’t go the way you want, but they played hard today just like they have every game.”
Right from the start, the Falcons struggled to get any offense going. It didn’t take long before the Mustangs established their dominance on the pitch. For the entire first half of the game, Sunrise Mountain continued to hammer away at the goal, but goalie Joao Acioli was not letting anything get by.
“[Acioli] is a great goalie,” Whitney said. “We can always count on him to make one or two great saves a game that we need.”
“I just try to do my part,” Acioli said. “I was more focused on doing my part and making sure I give us the best chance we have to win the game.”
Rotating his roster in and out to try to get things going, Whitney was becoming flustered with the lack of production from his team on the field. While nobody scored at this point, the Falcons’ struggling defense was leaving much of it in the hands of Acioli to get the save.
Catalina Foothills was able to make it to the 40th minute without allowing Sunrise Mountain to score, despite a relentless effort from the Mustangs. If the Falcons were going to answer, it was crucial to come out and set the tone to open up the second half.
Instead, the Mustangs clamped down and started pushing even harder offensively, continuing to force the Falcons to play their game. Off a corner kick, junior Huston Harper was able to head it to senior Kyle Foster, who headed it into the net for the goal. After 46 minutes, the Mustangs had finally claimed a 1-0 lead.
The Falcons kept fighting, with Acioli racking up the saves as the offense tried to get something going. In the 56th minute, it seemed as if Catalina Foothills was going to get on the board before a controversial call by the officials took the point away.
“We had an unfortunate call go against us on a ball we all thought was a goal that they called a foul,” Whitney said.
Officials said a player from Catalina Foothills ran into the Sunrise Mountain goalie, causing him to drop the ball, but the issue surrounds if he ever actually had the ball in his hands.
As time continued to run off the clock, the pressure continued to set in for the Falcons. It didn’t matter what they were trying to do, things just were not going their way as they were trying to keep the season alive.
In the 78th minute, Harper was able to get past Acioli to seal with a goal to make it 2-0 Sunrise Mountain.
“We play to counter attack,” Whitney said. “We were playing the way we wanted to… but that’s how it goes.”
“I think we had a better chance on another day in this game,” Acioli said.
Catalina Foothills boys soccer is saying goodbye to 10 seniors, but there’s still a bright spot for the Falcons with the number of talented youth returning next year. Acioli, who will be a senior next year, says he hopes to follow in the footsteps of the seniors this year and set a good example for the team.
Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @bbowyer07