ALBUQUERQUE — On a day where the game-time temperatures crept into the low 80s and a few hundred fans observed coronavirus-safe procedures while filling the aluminum bleachers of the UNM Soccer Complex, the timing seemed right for an impromptu storming of the field.
For perhaps 10 seconds, the student cheering section from St. Michael’s did just that. They’d just watched their girls soccer team beat Socorro, 4-1, in Thursday afternoon’s Class 1A/3A state championship match.
A handful of them managed to hop the railing separating the stands from the faded red track that surrounds the home of Lobos soccer. A couple even made it as far as the grass, dancing and celebrating with the players who had just won the school’s first title — and fourth overall — since 2009.
The rest of the revelers, well, they got turned back by security personnel who put the clamps on an all-out party on the crusty yellow turf.
“Playing on this team has been so much fun,” said St. Michael’s senior Rachael Morgan, laughing as she watched a number of her teammates mingle with the fans leaning over the railing. “I mean, we’re so lucky to even had a season, and to end it like this, it means more than I can really say. I think we all hoped for this, but now that it’s here, it might take a while to have it set in.”
For Morgan, it was a brilliant way to end her prep soccer career. Her final game in a Lady Horsemen uniform ended with a pair of goals that nearly included a third. The legacy she and the rest of the seniors leave behind is one of persistence, unselfish play and living in the moment.
Perhaps no one personified that as much as goalkeeper Milena Keene, a junior who dropped an absolutely electrifying performance in the first half of Thursday’s match. She had a sliding save that denied Socorro’s Elise Madril, racing out of the box as Madril closed in ahead of the St. Michael’s defense.
She followed that with another rejection just 40 seconds later, then again with 13 minutes left in the half when she punched away a free kick. With the crowd cheering every move Keene made, she had a sliding save on Lola Apodaca’s shot with four minutes left, then capped off the half with what she said might have been the best save of her life when she snuffed out a Madril free run at the goal by charging straight toward the Socorro forward and throwing her lower body into a block that sent the ball flying in a different direction.
“To be completely honest, every save I make is kind of like, ‘I can’t believe I made that happen,’ ” Keene said. “Sometimes the best plays you make are where you don’t think, you just react. I just knew I had to take those one versus ones and be aggressive with them, because if you sit back and wait on the line, it’s hard to do anything with them.”
With Keene doing her thing and the offense heating up behind Morgan’s two goals and others by Olivia Farrar and Elsa Ranney Smith, the only question down the stretch was whether the Lady Horsemen could post an eighth straight shutout to put a bow on an undefeated season.
Making the team’s third appearance in the state finals in four seasons, Socorro answered that with a late goal from Apodaca, a shot that found the back of the net with just eight minutes remaining.
St. Michael’s allowed a goal in the season opener against Sandia Prep, had seven straight clean sheets and Thursday’s match was essentially over as soon as Morgan’s second goal opened a 3-0 lead.
A few minutes after the St. Michael’s student body was pushed back behind the railing, Lady Horsemen coach Alfonso Camarena was asked to pose for a photo with his players holding the trophy. As is the case in such moments, it was a ploy to keep him distracted long enough to have the players dump a bucket of ice water over his head.
“It takes years to groom a team like this,” he said. “What makes this team special is the work so many put in for a long time.”
For Camarena, it was a family affair. His wife and daughter help run the team while his assistant coach is Gerzain Chavez, the team’s former head coach who has worked alongside Camarena for more than a decade.
“I consider him a brother to me,” Camarena said, explaining that the two have roots from the same area in Mexico. “We are not here without Gerzain. We are not here without these girls. Not one person can take the credit and that — that, I love about this team.”
NOTESFirst time: Thursday’s game was played inside UNM’s south campus soccer facility while the boys 1A/3A championship game was played moments later on the adjacent Robertson Field, immediately to the east of UNM’s indoor football training facility. It was the first championship game for high school soccer on Robertson Field.
Moving up: This makes four state championships for the St. Michael’s girls, which ranks ninth in state history. La Cueva leads that chart with 16. The Lady Horsemen also won it all in 2001, 2007 and 2009 under former coach Ed Velie. He is tied for seventh all-time among coaches with state titles.
Streak continues: No private school had won a girls soccer state championship until St. Pius won the 1A/3A crown in 1999. There hasn’t been a single state tournament since then without at least one private school finishing on top.