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Division III boys state soccer tournament preview

Cortez and Coronado have dominated the boys soccer headlines in recent years in Division III, with Cortez getting the best of Coronado, especially in the last two state title games. 

But those trends might end this season. Coronado defeated Cortez in their only regular season meeting this year when the previous top-ranked teams met. 

"Previous" because there's a team in Tucson that seems poised to snap Cortez's two-year state championship run. This year's D-III title race begins Tuesday with the high seeds hosting first round games. 

Palo Verde is battle tested after competing against Tucson's best during the regular season. First-year coach Mario Gastellum's squad earned the No. 2 seed last year but exited the 2012-13 state tournament in the quarterfinals. 

This year, the team returned nine starters, including the Velasquez cousins -- all six of them. With the Velasquezes and having seven players who have played on the same teams since middle school on board, chemistry isn't an issue for No. 1 seed Palo Verde. 

Palo Verde's opponents also will have their hands full defending Palo Verde's three forwards, Gerson Ndikumana, Ather Dawod and Bwaleso Igulu, who took turns scoring during the regular season. 

Coronado, the state runner-up the previous two seasons, earned the No. 2 seed this year thanks in part to its 3-1 victory over Cortez. It was the first and only time this season that Cortez gave up more than one goal in a game. 

Coronado (11-3-1) is coached by a former Arizona small school player of the year, Nick Barker, who is now a pastor and off-campus soccer coach. Barker's team returned 11 players this year, but only about four players played in last year's title game. 

Thinking of what happened in the last two titles games isn't on the minds of his players, Barker said. It's just a team focusing on its next opponent, which will be No. 15 seed Rio Rico, who starts a goalkeeper, Christian Lopez, that had a 1.78 goal against average. 

Coronado juniors Juan Sisneros and Omar Parra will attempt to figure out Lopez and his defense when they face Rio Rico in Tuesday's first round. 

The D-III state title race also will feature one of the state's scoring leaders, Yuma Catholic's Jorge Ruiz, a sophomore who has scored 31 goals. Yuma Catholic, the No. 3 seed, will face No. 14 Thatcher, which reached the playoffs for the second time in the program's history this season.  

One team that is accustomed to reaching the postseason is Northwest Christian, which got off to a slow start but still got in. No. 13 Northwest Christian will face No. 4 Safford in one of the more interesting first round matches.

Safford (16-0) is the only undefeated team in the tournament and is actually coached by Safford's mayor, Chris Gibbs. This is the strongest team Gibbs has coached at Safford, he said. 

(Teams and fans can now download the state soccer tournament programs for free. Photos and rosters of each team and stories previewing each soccer state tournament will be in the programs. 
The programs will be available to view here this week.) 



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