Central Arkansas Christian will play for a pair of Class 4A state soccer titles Saturday at the University of Arkansas.
Fabian Mina’s Mustangs will face Valley View at 10 a.m. Carter Lambert’s Lady Mustangs will play Mena at noon.
The boys will go for a second state championship after winning their previous one in 2008. The girls, one of the state’s best programs, will try for their fifth title since 2006. The Lady Mustangs won previously in 2006, ’07, ’08 and ’12.
"I am not sure many people expected us to be back in the final after losing so many key players and arguably the best coach in the state from last year’s team," said Lambert, who took over following the departure of Chris Owen. "Our goal has simply been to be the best we can be — with the emphasis on ‘we.’
"We have some really good players, but we are better as a team than as individuals. That is the key to any success we’ve experienced. Everyone is just focused on doing their best and making the team better. Hopefully, our best will be good enough to win Saturday."
CAC (17-2-1) survived its 2-4A matchup with Mena last month, 1-0.
Lambert said his team was looking forward to the rematch.
"After we played them in conference, both coaches felt we had a good chance to see each other again in the (state) final," he said. "Of all the teams we’ve played in (Class) 4A, they are the most capable of taking advantage of mistakes the other team makes. They have great speed at forward and a very strong central midfielder and goalkeeper. They play hard — not dirty, just very physical.
"We need to match their intensity and physical play, continue to play well defensively and do a better job of finishing. I know the effort and attitude will be there for us."
To reach the final, CAC beat e-Stem, 9-0; Maumelle, 1-0; and Episcopal Collegiate, 3-0.
Lambert said e-Stem was competitive for a half, but the Lady Mustangs’ depth made the difference as the game wore on.
"Their keeper played well and made some excellent saves," he said. "We ended up having six different players score. Senior Danielle Jayroe and junior Anna Kay Marlar scored their first goals of the season. Morgan Goodlow scored two really nice goals from long distance. Rachel Mina and Lynley Childress had a pair each and Brooke Lieblich had one."
He praised the play of Miranda Jones, Hope Otwell and Alexa Goodlow.
"They set up several of the goals," Lambert said.
Maumelle proved to be a test.
"Though we had beaten them earlier in the year, their coach had them better prepared, and we didn’t match their intensity, especially in the first 15 to 20 minutes of each half," Lambert said, adding that his team failed to convert some chances "and nearly paid for it."
"I felt we had regained control of the game toward the end of the first half, but they came out strong again in the second half and we were fortunate that they didn’t score," he said. "We were relieved when Goodlow scored late in the game. We had several chances but just couldn’t put it in."
He called the Lady Mustang defense — Samantha Lieblich, Falan Miller, Maria Martinez, Jessica Saunders, and keeper Jessica McCauley — "excellent."
"Katherine Rawlins was the player of the match," he said. "Defensive mid-fielders don’t get a lot of press, but she was everywhere. She never stopped working and never lost her composure and focus."
Following the excitement of the quarterfinal, he said Saturday’s semifinal was a bit anti-climactic.
"Episcopal is a very capable team, but they had just come off a double overtime win the day before," he said. "With a tournament format of three games in three days, I felt we had the advantage."
Although he said the game wasn’t as stressful as Maumelle had been, the Lady Mustangs weren’t able to relax until the end.
"We wasted some good scoring opportunities, but the effort was there," he said. "We played without one of our regular starters, but sophomore Maggie Van Winkle stepped in and played very well. I also thought our central mid-fielders worked hard. Morgan, Rachel, and Brooke’s efforts led to freshman Lynley Childress having a hat trick. She had a big game for us."
Mina’s Mustangs (18-2-1) also have a previous win over their state championship opponent. They beat Valley View on April 23, 2-0.
"We have lots of talent on our team and a really strong defense," Mina said. "We just need to come out strong and play our game and we should win the state championship.
"I have a lot of confidence in my players but know that Valley View is a strong team, so we are going to really have to be at our best."
To reach the final, the Mustangs beat Stuttgart, 4-0, slipped by Maumelle, 2-1, and eliminated Berryville, 3-1.
Mina said he would use the Maumelle game as a primer for Saturday. The Hornets went ahead 1-0 on a header by Jared Hailey in the 26th minute, and the coach said they were helped by a longer-than-usual halftime thanks to a weather delay. The Mustangs then scored on two headers by Josh Holland following the break to advance.
"Against Maumelle, our kids came out flat," Mina said. "We had beaten them easily early during the season, so I think we had underestimated them. They played an excellent game with lots of heart. They were very impressive.
"I think this gives us an advantage for our final game because we also beat Valley View during the season, but my team found out that beating them during the season does not mean it’s going to be an easy win for us during the state tournament."