WILLCOX — The Willcox soccer varsity qualified last week for its 14th playoff berth in the past 15 years but will draw the toughest assignment of the first round when the eighth-ranked Cowboys visit No. 1 Blue Ridge (12-0) in Lakeside on Wednesday.

“I’ve always said I wanted to face the toughest team; it doesn’t matter when,” 14th-year head coach Patrick Macumber said. “If we can’t beat them, you’re not going to win state anyways.”

Willcox won four of its last five decisions, losing only a nonregion game Oct. 19 to No. 2 Chino Valley before finishing with a 4-4 tie at independent foe No. 4 Bisbee on Thursday.

The Cowboys (6-2-1) overcame three deficits in Thursday’s contest, overcoming the Bisbee Pumas’ 2-0 first-half lead as senior Carlos Lon scored in the 45th and 71st minutes to force overtime.

The Pumas (10-0-1) forged a quick lead in the first overtime before Lon answered again in the fifth minute to make it 3-3. The Pumas looked golden when they took the lead yet again in the fourth minute of the second overtime. But a hand-ball violation just before the last minute of the game allowed senior Chuy Hernandez to cash in the penalty kick and force the final 4-4 decision. There are no penalty kicks after an overtime to break ties during the regular season.

“I thought all the seniors really stepped up,” Macumber said. “Carlos and Chuy were a big factor. Brayan Hernandez played a great game and left his heart on the field, knowing he can’t go to state because he’s part of this week’s FFA trip to nationals. On the defense, Pancho Oscar and Manuel Zepeda stepped up and played well. Plus, Javier Rios filled an important backup role on defense when we needed him.”

The Cowboys also picked up big wins against conference foes Patagonia and Desert Christian earlier this month to sweep the conference title. Hernandez scored twice in the 3-2 win over Patagonia, and junior Christian Lara added the other. Freshmen Alexis Hernandez and Johan Rodriguez scored in the 6-5 win over Desert Christian, while Hernandez added two others, Lara scored the fifth and senior Jesse Rodarte netted his biggest of the season.

“It felt great to sweep the conference,” Macumber said. “Sometimes we’ve had to depend on others to win or lose, but it’s undeniable when you beat everybody.”

The sweep ensured a state berth as league champs, but the tie with Bisbee did not help inflate the Cowboys’ power ranking to get them above the number-eight slot in the eight-team tournament. They finished just .15 of a point in the power rankings behind number-seven Snowflake and a chance to draw No. 2 Chino in a state rematch.

“I was hoping to get Chino because that’s the one team I’ve never beaten in 14 years, and that would be one more shot,” said Macumber, who will retire after the playoffs.

They could conceivably get that shot if they advanced past Blue Ridge and possibly Bisbee in the first two rounds of the tournament, while Chino eliminated Snowflake and possibly Camp Verde.

But Blue Ridge has qualified for the final championship game nine of the past 10 years, eliminated Willcox, 6-0, last year and beat the Cowboys, 6-0, in the Old Pueblo tournament earlier this season.

“Blue Ridge has shown so far this year that they are the team to beat and have earned their number-one ranking,” Macumber said. “We played some of our best soccer all season at Bisbee, so I think we’re peaking at the right time. I’m encouraged that I feel we can give Blue Ridge a good game.”

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