Correction: Dominic Torres was misidentified as 'Dominic Montoya' in the caption under the lead photo of the sports section in The Taos News on September 20, 2018. The Taos News sports editor regrets this error.
Under a sizzling midday sun, the Questa Wildcats soccer squad found themselves in the marquee game of the First Annual Desert Academy Invitational soccer tournament at Santa Fe's Alto Park Sept. 15. How they got there was a picture-perfect display of teamwork and hustle in the first two games, producing two impressive wins within a 14-hour window.
Once an annual gathering that featured a mix of teams from in and around Santa Fe, the tourney - aptly named the Wildcat - went into hiatus after 2010. Back after an eight-year pause, this "inaugural" event featured five teams from class A/3A and one independent, giving each participating team a firsthand look at their district and division competition.
On hand were the Desert Academy (Santa Fe) Wildcats, Moreno Valley (Angel Fire) Timberwolves, Tierra Encantada (Santa Fe) Alacranes, Questa Wildcats, Santa Fe Waldorf Wolves and the Oak Grove Classical Prep (Albuquerque) Owls.
"This tournament is a perfect fit for us," said coach Bill MacDonald prior to his first game against the host team Sept. 14. "We'll find out where we stand in relation to the teams we'll meet up with in the coming weeks."
MacDonald, whose Wildcat team was placed in a new league because of realignment and redistricting in 2018, found the changes to be a positive step for the program. "We no longer have to face the usual band of powerhouse teams and supremely talented individuals," said MacDonald, alluding to former district teams, such as Taos and Robertson in the north region, and private Santa Fe schools, such as St. Michael's and Santa Fe Prep. "Many players from the central region play year-round in clubs and traveling teams, which makes it hard for us to compete."
Split into two groups of three teams each, Questa found itself paired with the host team in the first game Sept. 14 (7 p.m. start), and Moreno Valley in the second Sept. 15 (7 a.m. start).
Against Desert Academy, MacDonald emphasized defense, reiterating to his team that "our points will come" and laid out a strategy to chunk up the area around Questa's net to keep the opposing Wildcats at bay. His overall message was simply to trust that Questa's forwards and midfielders would find a way to put points on the board. His defenders were tasked with keeping the ball out of the middle of the field.
The plan worked marvelously, and Questa emerged with a 3-2 victory that ended under the lights and put them in the driver's seat due to the tournament scoring format. Pool matches consisted of two games with three points given to a winning team, one point for a tie and zero points for a loss.
Earlier in the tourney, Desert Academy and Moreno Valley tied 4-4, so Questa had the advantage heading into its second game against the Timberwolves. A win or a tie would secure a chance to play in the championship game.
Answering the call to seize the moment, Questa won its second game 4-3 against a determined Moreno Valley team led by soccer phenom, Andrea Fringuelli, leaving no doubt they belonged in the championship game.
While the entire team deserved recognition for the recent success in Santa Fe, it was hard to ignore the offensive prowess that senior striker Dominic Torres demonstrated during the 3-game stretch. Torres ended the weekend with 6 points and was voted the tournament's most valuable player award by each of the head coaches in attendance. Also worthy of mention was the play by freshman goalkeeper Matthew Rael who repelled 12-of-20 shots and was credited with the wins against Desert Academy and Moreno Valley.
In the championship game against Tierra Encantada, the two undefeated defenses held their respective ground and played almost the entire first half without a score from either team. It wasn't until the 2:30 mark in the first half that an indirect penalty shot from Tierra Encantada found its way into the back of the net just beyond the outstretched gloves of goalkeeper Rael.
Questa would answer with a penalty shot of its own at the 34-minute mark in the second half to tie the score. A mere two minutes later, as the heat and fatigue started affecting the players on the field, the Alacranes would pump in the go-ahead score. They finished with another at the 8:45 mark to claim the 3-1 victory and tournament title.
"I was thrilled with the efforts of our back line all weekend," said MacDonald who affirmed the defensive mood and the strategy of the team throughout the tournament. "Our girls on the wings really worked hard and contributed to the overall success we achieved here."
The pair of "W's" boosted Questa's overall record to 4-2 - matching the total number of wins the team accrued in the last two full seasons.
District play is in full swing for the Wildcats as the Alacranes (2-0 overall) visited Questa for a rematch after this section went to press Sept. 18. A second game against the Timberwolves is on tap for today in Angel Fire. Start time is slated for 3:30 p.m.