Over the years, Grand Canyon High School’s soccer team has struggled as the small school in the 1A-3A North region.
The Phantoms had their moments, such as the victory over Sedona in 1997 and the team of 1998 that missed the playoffs by a single game. But still after more than a decade, Grand Canyon has been unable to taste the joys of the postseason.
The 2002 Grand Canyon High School soccer team, from left, front row: Becky Richardson, Chris Streit, Eddie Tobin, David Robinson, Jesse Hunter, Justin Kremer, Jeff Towers; middle row, Bertha Martinez, assistant coach; Roberto Guerrero, Jose Ibarra, Oscar Badillo, Brian Skeet, Chris Mickelson, John Gabaldon, Nathaniel Bitsui, Amanda Harner, Carlos Padilla; back row, Omar Badillo, Joseph Wilkerson, Alfred Alarcon, Jacob Wahler, Miles Hunter, Chas Iacampo, Tempy Walker, Kevin Beckerleg, Tomas Alarcon, Matthew Beckerleg, Scott Olsen, Janna Barth, Ken Hunter, head coach. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/GCN)
Enter this year’s Phantoms under first-year coach Ken Hunter. Grand Canyon has 28 students out for the sport, the top two scorers from last year’s team have returned and a conference realignment could give smaller schools like the Phantoms a better chance of qualifying.
“It’s a tough conference and for years, that’s been used as an excuse,” Hunter said. “I talked to the kids and told them that’s not our excuse anymore. That’s the challenge.”
The conference, renamed the Mountain Region, was realigned with Pinon out and three Phoenix schools now in — Valley Lutheran, Phoenix Country Day School and St. Paul’s Academy. Sixteen teams out of the three regions in the state will advance to the playoffs. The Mountain Region will qualify five schools.
Hunter’s not concerned about the new conference alignment and is trying to get his players to focus on the task at hand — playing good, fundamental soccer. That includes blocking out distractions that have hurt Grand Canyon at times over the past few years.
“I’ve been talking to them about staying focused,” Hunter said. “You can’t control the other team, the referees or the fans. As soon as you get upset, you’re not playing your best anymore.”
On paper, the Phantoms have a very young team with 23 of the 28 players being underclassmen. Still, there is some experience there and many of the athletes have grown up together in the sport through AYSO.
“Depth, I think that’s a key for us,” Hunter said. “Having substitutes is important with no timeouts in soccer. You need to use subs as timeouts to get players some rest.”
Over the past few seasons, Grand Canyon has struggled with periods of fatigue. The Phantoms, for example, led Chino Valley 2-0 at halftime last year before experiencing a letdown.
Heading into the season, Grand Canyon appears to be stronger on offense than defense. Miles Hunter, sophomore, returns after leading the club in goals last year. Carlos Padilla was second to Hunter in that category and led the team in assists. Throw in Oscar Badillo, who led Grand Canyon’s Under 19 AYSO team in scoring this summer, and it’s obvious the Phantoms have some threats.
The defense does have some skill, but it’s an area that needs work. Mainly, Hunter said the unit is young and just needs to mature.
“The will make some tactical mistakes,” Hunter said. “They will learn, hopefully. Soccer is basically a defensive game.”
At goalie, Nathaniel Bitsui appears to be the man. Bitsui played at that position some last year and could develop into one of the better goalies in the league. Hunter said a late addition to the team who is not yet on the official roster could eventually challenge Bitsui for the job.
"The key for us to have them work hard in practice," Hunter said of the team. "I've been surprised with some of them."
Grand Canyon’s roster features just five seniors. Along with Bitsui, others include Joe Wilkerson, John Gabaldon, Jose Ibarra and Alfred Alarcon. The team has a strong junior class with Oscar Badillo, Chas Iacampo, Chris Mickelson, Brian Skeet and Jake Wahler.
The sophomore class also has some good athletes, such as Omar Badillo, Kevin Beckerleg, Tempy Walker, Tomas Alarcon and Miles Hunter. Janna Barth and Becky Richardson are two of the three girls on this year’s team, the other being freshman Amanda Harner.
There are 10 freshmen on the squad. Those familiar with AYSO will recognize Matthew Beckerleg, Jesse Hunter, Scott Olsen, David Robinson, Chris Streit and Eddie Tobin. Justin Kremer, Robert Guerrero and Jeff Towers round out representatives from that class.
The other player on the team is Padilla, who is currently in the Esperanza Academy program at Grand Canyon.
The Phantoms open the season again this year in the Round Valley Tournament. Hunter said the tourney will probably not be a real indication of Grand Canyon's quality, mainly because several players didn't join practice until after school started.
The team will get Ash Fork at home early in the season on Sept. 13. The Spartans downed Grand Canyon a couple of times last year.
The schedule is top-heavy with home games early on. After Ash Fork, the Phantoms will host Northland Prep and Precision. Trips to Chino Valley and St. Paul's close out the month. The match at St. Paul's will be played in Tempe's Diablo Stadium.
Over what could be an important stretch run, Grand Canyon goes on the road for three of the last four games. The team plays at Ash Fork on Oct. 18, comes home to take on Sedona on Oct. 19, heads to Camp Verde on Oct. 25 and travels to Phoenix Country Day School on Oct. 26. Then on to the playoffs? Grand Canyon will give it a shot.