A state playoff trip to Rio Tinto Stadium is a coveted one. It is a trip not many make in their short high school soccer careers, as only those with enough determination, skill, and heart are able to compete for a state championship.
For these four remarkable young men, it was a trip to be remembered — a trip where expectations were exceeded, odds were defied, and shiny trophies were won.
Mitch Jensen, Blaze Nelson, Tristan Cowles and Carlo Garcia led brilliantly all year long before capping the season with state championship victories, and they are this year's Deseret News Most Valuable Players in their respective classifications.
5A: Mitch Jensen, Davis
Davis goalkeeper Mitch Jensen propelled the Darts into what turned out to be an incredible 5A state playoff run when he made two crucial, diving saves in the final minutes of the quarterfinal contest against Lone Peak.
"I thought all we had to do was hold out for a few minutes to win," Jensen said, describing Colby Child's goal in the 78th minute. "Then a foul was called in the box in stoppage time and a PK was given. I knew I had to come up big with a save."
Not only was he able to read the first player for the astounding save, he was able to do it twice — as he left his line early and granted the Knights a re-kick.
Though a shining moment for the senior, who finished the season with 12 shutouts, his utter determination to be perfect throughout the rest of the tournament is what truly makes him the 5A ranks' Most Valuable Player.
According to head coach Souli Phongsavath, Jensen made a promise to the team after that game.
He said; "We're not going to lose anymore. We're going to win this whole thing. I won't let us lose."
The strong-minded keeper held true to his promise in the semifinal victory over Copper Hills, earning the shutout before toppling the mighty Brighton Bengals for the 5A crown, 1-0.
"I was hoping the final would be against Brighton," he said. "They beat us in a preseason game and I knew we hadn't brought our best effort in that game. I wanted the opportunity to play them again and to show them we were a better team."
Jensen set the defensive tone throughout the season, giving the centers assurance and carrying the pressure on his own back. His teammates knew that they didn't have to be perfect because he was there to back them up, and his confidence truly set him apart.
"Keeper is always a nerve-wracking position," he said. "That's why many people don't want to play it. But to me, I love the pressure and the nerves of knowing that if I let shots go in, we are going to lose the game. I always stay focused and know what I need to do so that we'll be able to win."
The high-achiever started playing soccer at the age of 8. He has played on the Utah 93 ODP team since he was 13, he made the RSL U17 team pool, and has trained with a slew of notable keeper coaches — coaches to whom he attributes a great deal of his success.
Jensen will be attending Western Wyoming on a full-ride academic and athletic scholarship this fall.
"He's a just a great kid all around," coach Phongsavath said. "To me, that's the most important thing. He's a better kid off the soccer field then on, which is saying a lot, because to me, he is the best keeper in the state, hands down."
4A: Blaze Nelson, Olympus
Blaze. What a perfect name for the speedy Olympus midfielder. The senior could often be found burning past defenders, firing the ball up field, and igniting the Titans' offense.
The spark he created in the midfield was one the Titans could not have gone without.
In fact, the go-getter missed his entire junior year due to a snowboarding accident and broken collarbone, and according to head coach Chris Sonntag, his return as a senior made all the difference.
"He wasn't able to play at all his junior season and it took the legs out from under us," he said. "We didn't have the presence we wanted without Blaze. He worked tremendously in the offseason and with him (in the 2012 season), we went further than we would have ever thought."
Nelson and his teammate Amer Sasivarevic were the glue in the middle, filling crucial roles as the Titans operated out of the midfield. Nelson's knowledgeable play helped Olympus dominate possession.
"He is as skilled of a player as I have ever coached," Sonntag continued. "He is as offensive as he wants to be and absolutely understands the game … understands where to be, instinctively."
Nelson, who comes from a soccer loving family, started playing at age 7 or 8 and fell in love with the sport.
"It brings people together," he said of his love. "People you wouldn't usually hang out with become your best friends."
His versatility proved vital as he stepped up where needed and excelled on both ends of the field. He led his team to Rio Tinto and couldn't have asked for a better ending to his high school soccer career.
"I didn't expect us to get that far, honestly, but when we won it, I just started crying," Nelson said of earning the 4A state title. "Murray took the region title from us, so when we got state, I just started bawling because I was so happy. We really deserved it."
He is quick to credit his parents for his success, as well as his teammates and coaches for the Titan's championship victory.
Sonntag couldn't say enough about the high achiever.
"He was a pleasure," he said. "You don't usually get a kid that works that hard. He deserves it. He has worked so hard all of his life for soccer."
3A: Tristan Cowles, Dixie
According to Dixie head coach Burt Meyers, Tristan Cowles has it all: He's a model citizen, model student, extremely likeable, and one heck of a goalkeeper.
Cowles' prowess in the net helped him set a Dixie High School record with 12 shutouts, as he and his defense allowed the least amount of goals in school history.
"This was his big breakout year," Coach Meyers said. "From where he was last year to where he is now, he made a big jump."
Cowles, whose nickname on the team is "Cowboy" due to a certain haircut as a freshman, exceeded expectation and excelled at his spot in the net. He played on a tweaked ankle in the latter part of the season, showing his toughness and devotion to the team.
Two days after the injury, the junior wrapped his ankle and helped lock up a Region 9 title with a big win over Hurricane.
The nimble athlete went on to have an incredible state tournament, making crucial saves en route to the 3A title. He was determined to see a different outcome than the two heartbreaking semifinal losses in 2010 and 2011.
"We were tired of the semis," he said. "We wanted to make it all the way this year. It was a lot of excitement, knowing we were able to accomplish what we set out for. Not many get to experience it."
Cowles excelled not only on the field, but in the classroom as well, upholding honor roll status throughout the year. He is currently working on catching the attention of college recruiters — something he will surely do if he is able to build upon this year's stellar performance.
"My backline helped me out tremendously," Cowles said. "They make my job so much easier. They are the ones that really earn the shutouts up there."
Further exemplifying Meyers' testament of greatness, Cowles retains a humble character and positive attitude.
"He's coachable and very, very team oriented," Meyers said. "He has a great attitude, never misses practice, he's on time, never cuts class … just all of the things you hope for in an athlete."
2A: Carlo Garcia, Manti
Manti flew under the radar all season long, avoiding the spotlight only to emerge as the unexpected 2A state champions in the end.
Carlo Garcia, a lethal striker and integral team captain for the Templars, certainly turned heads during the tournament run.
He proved more than deserving of an MVP award, scoring a goal in each playoff contest and finishing just one goal shy of the state's top scorer with 25 goals.
"He has had a wicked shot that other teams have to respect," head coach Gerald Wayman said. "He brought a lot of defensive attention, freeing up other players but getting his too."
Freeing things up or not, Garcia was able to find the net. Whether splitting the defense for an up close look or blasting them from well beyond the 18-yard box, he was putting the Templars on the scoreboard.
His tournament play proved critical, as he tied things up against Waterford, assisted the winning goal in overtime and tied things up again against a highly favored St. Joseph.
"He's a strong weapon," Wayman emphasized, noting his height advantage on set pieces and ability to score out of the air.
The potent scorer started out the season as a midfielder, as Wayman hoped to draw defenders outside. However, it wasn't long before he was moved forward, putting him in a better position for offensive production.Comment on this story
Garcia notched several games with multiple goals, including a victory over Millard in which he found the net five different times.
Though his plan is to play college soccer, the recruiters may have their work cut out for them. He's already being looked at for his achievements as the star kicker on the football team.
He led Manti with a quiet confidence and refused to give up. His team fought a deficit in three of the four playoff games, defying the odds to capture the title.
"We had it in us," he said. "We were feeling it. We took it game by game and gave it all we got."