Eagles remain focused on task at hand

ARLINGTON — Heading into Wednesday's Division IV semifinal, the top-seeded Arlington girls soccer team is riding high at 16-0.

They're facing No. 5 Long Trail, a team they pummeled during the regular season, winning both games by six goals.

So for first-year coach Aaron Wood, how do you keep a team focused when they've already pounded their semifinal opponent twice?

"It's a tough question in sports," Wood said. "No matter what I say, they know they won the other two games against Long Trail, 6-0. But the playoffs are a different animal."

Case-in-point: Saturday's quarterfinal against No. 9 Twin Valley. Arlington dominated them in a pre-season scrimmage, then in the John Werner Tournament, blasted them 8-0 with the area's leading scorer, Tess Belnap, scoring five of those goals.

But in the playoffs, the Wildcats went with a pack-it-in strategy on defense, frustrating the Arlington offensive threats. The Eagles won 3-1, but it was the closest margin of victory this season to a team not named Proctor.

"We talked about we haven't accomplished anything yet," Wood said. "The goal is still the state title. We all believe if we don't win it all, it wouldn't be a success story for us, anything short will feel unacceptable."

Wood said one of his tactics to keep the Eagles focused is to remind them that everyone starts 0-0 in the playoffs and that they need to be the team that wins four games first — the amount needed to secure its first state crown since 2009.

"Each round, the competition gets tighter and tighter," Wood said. "Long Trail is well-coached. They'll probably man-mark Tess, but it'll be a pretty straight-up soccer game. The funny thing about soccer is that the best team might not be the best on that day."

Another thing that is against the Eagles is their health. Wood canceled practice on Monday with a handful of players ill and he hopes things will be OK for Wednesday.

"Someone has to step up, sometimes there is injury or sickness," Wood said. "On Saturday, Aimee [Frank], my sweeper for three years, was sick, so Lilah [Ward] filled in for her and Kierstyn [Hess] moved into Lilah's spot. We pride ourselves on having a solid team top to bottom. It's great to have No. 1 and No. 2, but it's just as good to have the best 10th or 11th player. It's a team mentality."

As many blowouts as the Eagles have had, it's their play in tight games that impresses Wood the most.

"The two games against Proctor stand out, going to Proctor and winning was gutsy and the comeback down here as well," said Wood, referring to a 3-1 win on the road and a 2-1 final day of the regular season win at the Arlington Rec Park. "To watch my girls come through in the clutch is fabulous to watch, it's a great group of kids and it's been a pleasure to work with them."

An unsung hero for his club is senior Xandria Hoyt. With Belnap and Haley Mattison having scored 72 goals combined this season, Hoyt has 12 of her own, a terrific third option for the Eagles.

"She doesn't get enough credit," Wood said. "She's third for us, but she's got to be in the top five in the Marble Valley League. She's definitely underrated and a lot of our plays start with Xandria going down the line. She's the engine that goes on the right side."

Wood doesn't want to look ahead, but another matchup with Proctor looms — if they can beat a divisional opponent a third time.

"LTS beat us both times last year, we need to have our best games of the season on Wednesday and if we're lucky enough to advance, Saturday," Wood said. "If we don't show up, we can be out in a heartbeat."

The game against Long Trail is scheduled for 3 p.m. at the Arlington Rec Park.


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