Ridgeline boys soccer’s transformation from good to elite led to state title | Sports

MILLVILLE – Miguel Gustave set up a corner kick at America First Field on Thursday, May 23rd. Playing on that field for the 4A state boys soccer championship with his teammates of Ridgeline High School was the fulfillment of years-long dreams. Though this game was on the precipice of turning into a nightmare.

A mere 18 minutes ago, the Riverhawks led the game 3-1 over Murray. Now, as Gustave raised his hand prior to sending in the corner cross, the score stood 3-3. Ridgeline had blown a two-goal lead in rather short order.

The relatively giant scoreboard just above both teams gathered at the north end of the field was ticking down to under 90 seconds to play, enough time for one last game-winning play, but on its face this game looked far too familiar to a game Ridgeline took part in earlier this season. A contest that did not end well by any measure.

Exactly five weeks prior, on April 18 in Millville, and with just over eight minutes on the second-half clock, Ridgeline could hardly be in a more comfortable position up 3-1 at home over Logan. It’d be pretty difficult to lose at this point.

Well, right as the clock went under eight minutes, Ridgeline was called for a foul in the outer part of the penalty box. The Grizzlies converted from the spot, making it 3-2. Two minutes after that, the Riverhawks conceded the equalizer. As if that weren’t enough, Logan found one more goal, completing the rally in regulation and claiming a 4-3 victory on Ridgeline’s home turf.

Something that’s worth pointing out here is that the Riverhawks were no underdog story. Since entering the stage as a new high school in 2016, they’d already appeared in three state title games and won two of them. Some teams have a moment mid-season or early in a campaign where they see championship potential in themselves. Ridgeline head coach Richard Alexander and his staff received that epiphany right away.

“That moment came at our first training after team selection,” Alexander said in an exclusive interview on the Full Court Press with Eric Frandsen and Jason Walker. “Seeing how quickly they meshed and seeing the individual skills that each player possessed. We knew that if we were to put the right gameplan together that we could get these guys competing at the highest level.”

The head coach of Ridgeline boys soccer, Richard Alexander, joins the Full Court Press with Eric Frandsen and Jason Walker to discuss his team’s 16-2 season which included a Region 11 title and a 4A Utah state championship — the third such title in Riverhawks school history — the highs and lows of a dramatic season for Cache Valley’s top boys soccer team.

Two of the top three goal-scorers in the state played for Ridgeline. Diego Vazquez’s 21 goals led all players and Tate Hickman tallied 17 to rank third. Vazquez also ranked second in assists (14) with Ivan Leon fourth (12) and Hickman seventh (nine) in the same category. Crosby West and his back line on defense conceded less than a goal per game on average with eight total shutouts. A total of 10 players notched at least one goal out of the 63 scored by the Riverhawks all year with 13 players recording at least one of the 53 assists for said goals.

The fact the Riverhawks were good didn’t surprise anyone. Being third place in Region 11 with a couple weeks of the season left was a bare minimum of what the team could achieve.

Ridgeline’s response to its situation would transform the team and push the entire squad toward fulfilling its potential. Perhaps the most telling stat behind the transformation is the difference between the first set of games against Region 11 teams and the latter.

Following five games of region play, Ridgeline sat at 3-2 (excluding non-region games) and had a goal differential of +8 in those five region games — by no means nothing to sneeze at, though not enough to be first place. In the second set of five games, the Riverhawks were a perfect 5-0 with a +19 differential, the very definition of elite. In fact, Ridgeline wouldn’t lost a game the rest of the way, with the ensuing nine-game streak to close out 2024 including a 3-1 win over the Grizzlies and a pair of victories (4-0 and 3-2) over Green Canyon, the only other team to defeat Ridgeline this year.

“Losing games early is a great thing,” Alexander said. “Going undefeated obviously, that would be an amazing accomplishment. But there’s a lot of lessons that you can learn losing early in the season. And these boys really came together on those two losses in the first round (of region games). What you saw in the second was just their determination, their grit and their hard work that they put into every training after the first half of the season.”

With such a change and a turn from good to elite performance, Alexander wasn’t having nightmare-ish flashbacks to the loss against Logan after Murray’s equalizer.

“When Logan came and tied us 3-3. There was a lot of doubt in my mind and my heart. And I was feeling like ‘Oh shoot, these guys are not able to turn it around, to get that momentum back. We’re gonna lose this game.’ There was a lot of that that was going on in my mind,” Alexander said. “But I can say firmly that in the final when Murray tied us, I had a very calm, relaxed feeling that came over me.”

The players, too, weren’t held down by thoughts of losses long gone.

“Our captain Tate Hickman, got rotated back in the game,” Alexander said. “He got the team together, quickly said some words to the team and you saw the momentum shift and things were going our way from there.”

The feeling on the field and on the Riverhawks’ sideline was clear. “We’re going to win this game, it’s just a matter of when.”

Thus, Gustave sent that corner kick in with 90 seconds left in the championship game, Ridgeline wouldn’t be denied. The ball floated to the middle of the box, deflected of Tate Hickman’s back as he tried to head it toward goal and fell to the feet of Ivan Leon. Leon tried a low-altitude bicycle kick but the ball came off his foot wrong and bounced parallel to the end line across the box. Then a third Ridgeline player, Diego Vazquez, took a swing as the ball bounced by but he couldn’t connect.

After three unproductive bounces of the ball, the Riverhawks got one last chance. Denaeyer Dean had the ball deflect off his thigh, fall right in front of him, and a right-footed poke at the ball sent a ripple through the back of the net and a championship trophy to Millville.

“Look at the determination that the boys had,” Alexander said of the wild play. “Every single one of our guys, they were determined to put that ball away. They were determined to win that game and you could see it in that final play.”

In some ways, one could say that loss to Logan helped define Ridgeline’s season. But the better way to put it is that the loss did not define who the Riverhawks were. The team that fell to the Grizzlies on April 18 wouldn’t have won the state title. The team they became was one that wouldn’t come up short when it mattered most. A team of champions.

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