A scrum of white and red-clad teenagers race up and down the Bermuda grass at Oro Valley’s Naranja Park. The cadre of boisterous athletes are all high school age, but they’re not practicing for a high school team. They make up the Tucson Soccer Academy’s 18-and-under girls soccer squad, which has made quite the name for itself on the pitches of Southern Arizona this spring.
The squad, coached by longtime Ironwood Ridge skipper Sean Watkins, posted a 17-4-9 record this season, claiming first place in the Arizona 18U Presidents Cup back in April.
The team’s success at that tournament qualified them to travel to Salt Lake City this week, where they will play teams from across the western United States.
The squad, which consists of high school upperclassmen and recent graduates from Oro Valley’s Canyon del Oro and Ironwood Ridge high schools, as well as Marana, Catalina Foothills and Tucson high schools—is relishing its first opportunity to play on the sport’s biggest stage.
Watkins is enjoying the extra time he gets with the group of teenagers, embracing the grind of mid-summer practices in sweltering heat to hone their craft.
“I’ve been a part of regionals before with different teams in different competitions, and it’s a really cool team-bonding experience,” Watkins said. “And going into being able to represent your state is, it doesn’t happen very often.”
The Oro Valley squad has smashed its competition, winning each of its last four statewide tournaments, a direct result of the on-pitch chemistry shared by players and coaches alike, according to player Lux Butler.
“This season was special because we really pulled it together,” she said. “This season was really special because everyone came from everywhere onto the team.”
The squad’s success this season stems from its stifling defense that’s surrendered 1.1 goals per game.
Team member Allie Cherrington believes the team’s camaraderie and team-first mentality creates an atmosphere that’s fun to be around—making success a natural evolution.
“We’re all really good friends off the field, but on the field now it’s starting to show and we all work together,” Cherrington said. “Our midfield wasn’t super strong at the beginning of the year because we weren’t as together at first, but then with like our new players that we got on our team, we really worked together.”
One last Run
The team’s elder statesman, Payton Watkins (Sean’s daughter) is thrilled to have the opportunity to play in the Salt Lake City competition.
Watkins, who graduated last month from IRHS, knows that her days of playing competitive soccer are numbered—giving further importance to the event, which runs from June 12-17.
“What’s cool for me is this is like one of my last times that I can play soccer competitively, since I’m a senior,” she said. “This is my last tournament to really shine and I think it’s really cool that we had this opportunity to go to Salt Lake City and go regionals for the last everything.”
The team’s fun-loving nature allows Watkins to take chances with the team’s offensive attack and defensive schemes.
The longtime coach enjoys having the ability to teach his players, while also counting on them to do what’s right when it matters most.
“It’s a really, really nice mix of girls in terms of their age, but they’re all single-minded in terms of what they want,” Watkins said. “They want to compete at the highest level they can without having to sacrifice too much in terms of travel.”
Watkins helped start TSA’s Oro Valley program some two years ago, watching its evolution into two 30-man squads in short order.
He’s thrilled that this group of players can experience such a high level of competition with a team of their closest friends.
“This is a perfect opportunity for them to be able to, I guess know when they go to regional showcase what they can do on the field,” he said.
Team member Mia Welch believes the Salt Lake City competition can show other teams how solid of a soccer community there is in northern Pima County.
“It’s a big deal for Oro Valley soccer,” Welch said. “We’re showing all the other people in Tucson and in Phoenix that we can compete and that we deserve their respect, too.”