In 2019, the Blue Ridge High School varsity soccer team met no equals.
On Saturday, Nov. 2, Yellow Jackets capped the best season in fall soccer history by defeating Chino Valley for the state title, 3-0, at Gilbert Williams Field High, and finishing with 23 wins and no losses.
It is the program’s first state soccer championship since 2012 and 10th title in the 26-year history of the fall state tournament. And it came one year after Blue Ridge missed its first state title appearance since 2008, which was preceded by a string of five consecutive seasons of state runner-up finishes.
Those years of frustration led to a renewed work ethic which culminated in a return to the top for the state’s winningest fall soccer program.
“I’ve lost this thing a couple of times and all these guys I’m playing with now I’ve seen them all cry,” said Blue Ridge senior striker Tommy Pederson. “We came together every single year after (those seasons that ended in a loss). We told ourselves ‘we gonna push it and be the best team.’ We went through every single team, 23-and-0, pushing it. The captains and I came up with this motivation for the team called “Conquer From Within. We stuck with it and we say it before every single game. It means you get over all those anxieties, all those other teams. We conquer everything that comes our way. Thats what we did this year, we stuck with our motive.
Thoughout this season, the Yellow Jacket forwards, midfielders and defenders were able to control their opponents and find teammates in scoring position.
The Jackets wasted little time gaining the advantage on a familiar title-game opponent. Pederson scored off an assist in the opening minutes to take a 1-0 lead.
“It just felt amazing,” Pederson said. “We’ve been paying these games all season, setting ourselves up in the right position. On that goal I was in the right position.”
Blue Ridge held that advantage until midway through the second half, when Pederson again found the net on an agressive move up centerfield.
“That was all grit,” said the senior. “I had to push through some defenders. I just had to put it through the goalkeeper’s legs and show Chino that we came here to play.”
A few minutes later, following a corner kick, Pederson got to the ball again and scored his third goal for good measure and a commanding 3-0 lead with just a few minutes left.
“The ball was bouncing around, and someone kicked it (toward me),” said Pederson, who has been among the national leaders in scoring the past two seasons. “The ball bounced my way I just got to it and I’m thankful I could get in that position. I couldn’t have done it without my brothers. These guys are the reason I’m the (scoring leader) right now. We all push each other to be the best.”
With all the pressure put on by the rest of the Jackets, junior Blue Ridge goalkeeper Andy Platt enjoyed a relatively stress-free day.
“There weren’t any seams I was too worried about because I had my defense was backing me up,” Platt said. “I didn’t have to make any difficult saves. Our midfields controlled the whole game and that’s what we focused on it all year. They have been able to pass it through the offense and get it to Tommy and Canyon on the front wings. We’ve just been able to control the game and that’s how we score.”
This year’s state championship is the fourth for Blue Ridge head coach Bryon Crain, who led the Jackets to three consecutive state titles between 2010 and 2012. He praised how each unit contributed to the win.
“It is all about every unit,” said the coach. “These boys are a brotherhood, they are a family, and that’s the main thing we coached all year. They fight for the guy to the right, the guy to the left, the guy to the guy up front, the guy behind.”
Assisting Pederson on two of his goals were junior Michael Littleman and senior Isaiah Pelagio.
Littleman said he has been playing with most of his teammates since he was 3 years old.
“ I’ve played AYSO with all of them,” Littleman said. “These players, I have grown up with s lot of them. We have really good chemistry. We have the best team bonds. We are just brothers. Some of our brotherhoods will last for life.”
Senior defender Riggs Wengert said it was a great ending to a lot of hard work.
“We worked for it,” Wengert said. “Thanks to Coach Crain for always pushing us. We have great teammates and we push each other. Overall a great year and we are glad to end it this way.”
Sophomore defender/midfielder Cesar Bonilla helped dominate at midfield and defense alongside Littleman and Wengert. He stressed the importance of work ethic in the team’s success.
“The first half we dominated,” Bonilla said. “The second half we just gassed them out and finished them off at the end.
“Every since I came into high school we’ve just been working hard. Except for last year, it’s geen like runners-up, and it seems like it was (Chino Valley) we kept losing to. This year putting in the workouts was when everyone would push it the hardest. That was what this game was. This was like the last minute of our last workout, when everyone would push it the hardest.”
Bonilla had plenty of praise for his teammates.
“This is the best team I’ve ever played on,” he said. “I love these guys so much, especially the seniors: Tommy, Kadan (Brimhall), Josh (Miles), Riggs and Isaiah. They really are family. I’ve never been this close with a team like this one. Every day at school we talk to each other, we laugh. This team is like the best thing ever. Everyone on this team is good. No one in the state has as much talent as our team. Our strikers Tommy, Kadan, Canyon (Brosemann). Our midfield our defense Gus (Cuiriz), Michael, Pedro (Alcantara Queiroz). Our defense, Riggs and Josh. They are so good.
Blue Ridge finished the regular season with 20 wins and no losses and ranked No. 1 coming into the playoffs.
The Jackets opened the state tournament with a 9-1 win against No. 8 Bisbee in Lakeside on Wednesday, Oct. 30. Pederson scored four goals in the game. Michael Littleman had two goals and two assists, Kadan Brimhall scored one goal and added two assists, and Gustavo Cuiriz scored one goal and had one assist. Canyon Brosemann also scored a goal and Alberto Diaz added an assist.
In the semifinals at Williams Field High on Friday, Nov. 1, the Jackets defeated No. 4 Willcox 8-0 to advance to the state title game for the 17th time in school history, more than any other team. Eleven Blue Ridge players combined for 36 shots on goal. Pederson scored six goals, Brimhall and Daniel Pansulla scored one goal apiece. Littleman led the team with five assists.
The 10 state championships is also the most of any team in fall soccer history. This year’s title snaps a two-year title run by Phoenix Country Day. Chino Valley is second with four straight, all over Blue Ridge, from 2013 to 2016.