Oct. 14—It took Hersch Wilson a match and a half to realize how good the Santa Fe Prep Blue Griffins could be, especially on defense.
All Wilson, Santa Fe Prep's head boys soccer coach, needed to convey that was one halftime talk. Granted, it occurred during a nondistrict match against defending Class 1A-3A champion Albuquerque Sandia Prep on Sept. 7, but Wilson told his squad it was missing one crucial piece — physicality.
"Sandia Prep is kind of the gold standard [in 1A-3A]," Wilson said. "So, we had to learn that, 'Hey, we can stay with these guys. If we play our game, we can beat them not think like they are unbeatable.' "
With those words, the Blue Griffins took off. They rallied from a 1-0 halftime deficit to win 2-1, and have won nine straight matches since then. In the process, they also forged an identity of being a tough, defensive side that has surrendered just six goals during that stretch, including four shutouts in their last five matches.
The most recent came Wednesday evening, as Santa Fe Prep beat host Las Vegas Robertson 3-0 to ensure at least a tie for the District 2 1A-3A title.
If the Blue Griffins beat
St. Michael's next week, they will win their second straight outright title and set themselves up as a top-two seed for the upcoming Class 1A-3A State Tournament at the end of the month.
The path to the program's third state title in the past seven years will be determined by Santa Fe Prep's stalwart defense that is equal parts physical and fast. However, it's a reputation that now precedes the Blue Griffins, something that could not have been said at the beginning of the year.
They showed elements of it in a 1-all tie against Albuquerque Bosque School to open the season, and staying within 2-1 of Santa Fe High on Aug. 30 before the Demons scored four times in a 25-minute span of a 6-1 win.
A key change Wilson made was playing Sam Little and Hakan Guiler-Hatch in the back to help solidify the defense. Guiler-Hatch said it helped improve communication and diminished opponents' ability to send thru balls past the back line.
"It's slowly been getting better and better, and we've been controlling that back line better," Guiler-Hatch said. "We're getting the ball out [from back line] and the distribution has been really good."
Little said the defense's ascent has been a couple of years in the making because the back line has played together for much of that time. The one thing they lacked was the ability to be more physical when marking opponents. However, that started to change last year, as Prep went 5-4, won the district title for the first time in four seasons and played the Sundevils to a 2-0 loss in the 1A-3A semifinals.
Little said that experience helped set the tone for this year, adding the shortened spring season seemed to roll into the fall.
"It was such as short break between when we stopped and then when we started for this season," Little said. "Really, it was just like a refresher for our legs over the two months of summer [when the team didn't play] and then we're right back together. That was super special, just because if kind of felt like we never stopped."
While breakdowns with the back line occasionally occurred, the goalkeeping duo of Mateo Gilbert and Jonas Anderson-Joyner were up to the task of defending the goal. Wilson has alternated starts for the two, and said he has yet to pull either of them for their performance. He said they each bring unique skills to the position — Gilbert has strong hands, while Anderson-Joyner has great lateral movement.
Wilson said they are products of his philosophy that players should compete in another sport. He said Gilbert's ball-handling skills are a direct result of playing basketball, while Anderson-Joyner's footwork comes from his spring season with the tennis team.
"That's where you see that cross-training really, really pays off," Wilson said. "And my big deal for soccer players is to play multiple sports."
As the defense has solidified, it has had the effect of taking some of the pressure off the back line and placed it squarely on opposing teams' defenses. Guiler-Hatch said the defense's ability to push the ball upfield has allowed the offense to open up. Littler and Guiler-Hatch have benefitted, as all three of their combined goals have come in the last four matches.
"I love scoring goals," Guiler-Hatch said. "I don't get to do it often, but that ability to be in the attack when I'm needed and be able to trust that somebody is going to drop back for me or that the back line is going to be there, is something I am really happy with."
It's the kind of privilege a good defense can afford. Which is what Wilson saw when the season was still young.
He believes it will be a constant when Novembers rolls around.