WILLCOX — There are only eight playoff spots fought over by 25 teams in three large geographical regions of the state for fall soccer in Arizona. This sport has the thinnest margin of error for a team trying to “make” state.

The Willcox Cowboys are among those teams that participate in this elite competition. It was whittled down in postseason from 16 to eight teams two years ago, and Willcox took a hard knock last year when it won its region, made state and still drew an 11-1 section titlist in the very first round.

“Always our goals are to win our section and make a run at state,” said head coach Patrick Macumber. “To break through, we’ll need better communication, to work as a team and score more than our opponent.”

Scoring was an issue in its 6-0 state elimination by Blue Ridge last year. Stepping up this season to that kind of elite level will require a quick education passed down from four experienced seniors starters who return this year.

“They work hard, and it makes the team want to work hard,” Macumber said. “Plus, we get new recruits we’re excited about every year.”

“The things I want most this year,” said senior midfielder Brayan Hernandez, “are: first, I refuse to lose to Benson. And second, I think we have a real shot to beat (perennial champion) Chino. And third, we will hopefully make a deep playoff run and not lose in the first round.”

Hernandez will be joined in those goals by senior striker Jesus (Chuy) Hernandez, a team captain as a junior.

“We’ll need to get good at team bonding because there’s a lot of new kids,” Jesus said. “I need to set a good example if they’re looking up to me.”

Senior midfielder Carlos Lon, like Chuy, is a four-year starter.

“Staying together as a team motivates me to keep playing. We’re a family. We always give it our best, and it’s a lot of fun,” Lon said.

Senior defender Manuel Zepeda is ambitious about making a big step in his final year with the team.

“Our biggest goal has always been to try to go further in the playoffs and we haven’t done that yet, and I feel like it could happen this year,” Zepeda said.

Macumber was happy to see his squad get back to a section title one year after it had its first losing record (3-5 in 2017) that spiraled downward after a loss to Benson. The team was able to beat Benson, 3-2, last year and battle for the section title and get back to the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 years.

“I really do take pride in our success and stability,” Macumber said. “When people talk to me about the soccer program, it’s always good things; it’s always compliments about our level of competitiveness over the years.”

The way the players talk about their coaches and the team is also a nice reflection on the program. Here’s Brayan Hernandez giving an unprompted monologue on the state of Willcox soccer.

“I think it’s important we do well for coaches Macumber and Jeff Stoddard,” he said. “We want to make sure, if they retire, that they go out in a good way. We don’t want to disappoint them because they’re not too familiar with disappointment, and we don’t want to get that into their heads.”

Lon has a similar sentiment, saying, “I expect to keep playing soccer as an adult and coming down here to the school and supporting the team as an alumni (sic).”

Team captain Chuy noted how well the team competes despite a pronounced lack of team size compared to opponents.

“Our strength is that we have heart; we won’t give up,” he said.

The squad also features a co-ed angle to its makeup, as four girls, up from two last year, are hoping to compete for playing time with the 14 boys.

“I get inspiration from the World Cup,” said second-year senior Vivian Aguero, “because it showed me even women can be good at this kind of sport, and playing against guys teaches me you can be more aggressive than you think you can be. In the future, I hope I go to a big college and keep going with playing soccer and make my kids do it, too.”

Willcox soccer also has some fine underclassmen with starting experience, including juniors Brian Magana, Victor Marquez and Christian Lara; and sophomore Eulises Lara.

“We have a lot of people who can move the ball and control the ball,” Macumber said. “We have a couple of returners to lead our defense. I think we’ll be fine once games start.”

The team will start Tuesday, Sept. 10, by hosting powerful Desert Christian. The later schedule includes home games with Benson, Bisbee and Chino Valley.

Once the games end, Macumber and Stoddard may be hanging up their clipboards.

“Assistants Chimo Lopez Aguero and Skylar Stoddard (both former players) are here to take over, hopefully, when Jeff and I plan to step down,” Macumber said.

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