For years, the knock on El Paso high school sports is that football teams rarely make it deep into the state playoffs.
The same cannot be said for other team sports, especially soccer. Both the San Elizario Eagles and Bel Air Highlanders each captured state titles in boys soccer.
It is the first time in history that a pair of El Paso high school boys soccer teams won state championships in the same season but in different divisions.
Both stories are incredible achievements given the circumstances surrounding each team.
San Eli Eagles
The San Elizario team entered the season as defending state champions. After finishing the regular season 11-4-3, the Eagles won all six playoff games, including a 1-0 double overtime victory over Midlothian Heritage to claim their second consecutive state title.
Junior Victor Unzueta scored the game winning goal against Midlothian and he was named Most Valuable Player.
Two days earlier, they dealt Palestine their only loss of the season to advance into the state championship game.
The Eagles have dominated 4A soccer the last five years, having won three state championships.
Head coach Max Sappenfield has built a dynasty in the borderland.
“He started developing talent around the community by playing soccer at a very young age,” Wayne Thornton of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department said. “It’s a very tight-knit community, and they play soccer year-round.”
Thornton said he expects more state titles from Sappenfield’s teams and a dominance reminiscent of the UConn women’s basketball team.
Bel Air Highlanders
Meanwhile, the Bel Air Highlanders boys soccer team completed a dream season with their first state 5A title in their first ever appearance in the Final Four.
They did so by knocking off two-time state defending champion Frisco Wakeland 2-1. Ivar Arroyo scored the game-winning goal in the second half and the senior was named MVP of the championship game.
The Highlanders finished their season with a 28-1 overall record, including seven wins in the playoffs. Their only loss came against Del Valle in January.
“Bel Air gets good quality competition because they play in the toughest soccer district in Texas,” Thornton said. “When you have a legendary soccer coach Bruce Reichman at Del Valle and a former UIL Final Four team in Eastlake, every game is a championship contest in district 2-5A.”
The timing of these two state championships could not be better for El Paso.
The city now has a professional soccer club competing in the United Soccer League’s Championship division.
Three area players are on the Locomotive FC roster and more could be in the pipeline with such success from the El Paso high school talent.
MountainStar Sports Group is committed to growing the game locally with a soccer developmental program targeting youth players.
The good news for them is that the foundation is already in place and state titles will lead to more attention for youth players – and potentially more college scholarships.
Since 1997, Steve Kaplowitz has hosted “Sportstalk” from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays on 600 ESPN El Paso. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.