girls soccer coach Terry Banfield entered his team into the Arapahoe Warrior Invitational, hoping to get his players some experience and maybe bolster the team's RPI resume.
Littleton went 1-2 in the tournament, and eventually made the Class 4A state playoffs and won its opener. The Lions returned the majority of their lineup, so Banfield put the squad back into the same tournament this season to gain a similar experience.
Littleton responded by opening with a victory over Ralston Valley (Arvada) before taking down 5A Preseason No. 1 Arapahoe (Centennial). The Lions eventually fell 2-1 to ThunderRidge (Highlands Ranch) in the title game, but consider the message sent.
"It's kind of a magical start, really," Banfield said after third-ranked Littleton opened with four victories in five games over 5A opponents. "We've got 11 seniors on our team. It's sort of been a building process."
Banfield may not have entered the tournament with high expectations, but that didn't stop the Lions from making an early statement. Seniors Sarah Gray
and Sarah Payson
have a combined 10 goals on the season, and another senior, goalkeeper Lily Jensen
, has recorded 26 saves in five games.
"These aren't lucky wins – they're good wins," Banfield said. "We're scoring goals against good teams.
"It's just a fun start to the season. The kids are so determined to work hard and have an impact and improve on where they were last year."
Whereas a number of programs were hurt by the inaugural season of the U.S. Soccer Girls Development Academy – in which players with certain club programs are unable to join their high school teams in the spring – Littleton has no such issues. The team is loaded with experience, led by Gray and Payson.
Gray has six goals in five games and Payson has four headed into Tuesday's game with Air Academy.
"They're on fire. They're absolutely on fire," Banfield said. "They've been on varsity since they were freshmen, and it's nice to see them come through. Now is really their time to shine and do that at the top level."
Littleton finished tied for fifth last spring in a Jeffco League that had three teams in the 4A semifinals. D'Evelyn (Denver) defeated Evergreen to win the state championship. The Lions were 2-5 in league play, but were competitive in just about every game, including a 1-0 loss to the Jaguars.
Banfield understands that after its hot start, Littleton won't be able to fly under the radar anymore – and that's just fine with him.
"It's going to be one of those things where people are going to try and figure out ways to slow us down, ways to attack us, ways to beat us. I like that though," Banfield said. "It gives the girls something to work on and something to maintain.
"I think the confidence has spread and just the idea that we like this, we like working this hard – we like success. Once you get a feeling and a taste that you like, you want to keep hold of that."
While some programs are moving forward without its elite club players, there is still plenty to look forward to this season. With the state's four classifications open for the taking, here is a quick overview of each one (returning all-state players from first and second teams are based on current rosters from MaxPreps.com):Class 5A
Defending State Champion: Mountain Vista (Highlands Ranch)Overview:
Mountain Vista made it the 5A title game for the fourth time in seven seasons, avenging a 2016 loss by defeating Arapahoe for the championship. The Golden Eagles graduated a strong group of seniors – including reigning Player of the Year Haley Schueppert – but still return some key pieces, including goalkeeper Baileigh Baker
. … Grandview (Aurora)
, which won the 2015-16 state titles, lost to Mountain Vista in a shootout in the semifinal. The Wolves return leading scorer Morgan Szarka
. … Broomfield
brings back one of the state's top scorers in senior Hailey Stodden
(26 goals), who is headed to Utah. The Eagles made the semifinals a year ago before falling to Arapahoe (Centennial)
. … Speaking of the Warriors, despite missing some key pieces because of the Development Academy, Arapahoe still has leading scorer Danielle Babb
(16 goals, 11 assists in 2017) leading the way. … ThunderRidge (Highlands Ranch)
won the Arapahoe Warrior Invitational and is off to a 4-1 start. McKenna Kercher
has four goals. … Cherry Creek (Greenwood Village)
, which was upset in in a shootout in the second round, graduated a lot of talent in Libby Geraghty and Meg Halvorson. The Bruins still bear watching, though. … Legacy (Broomfield)
started 4-0, with all-state senior Gracie Armstrong
(25 goals, 15 assists in 2017) playing well early.Returning All-State Players:
Gracie Armstrong, Sr., Legacy (1st team); Danielle Babb, Sr., Arapahoe (1st team); Hailey Stodden, Sr., Broomfield (1st team); Morgan Szarka, Sr., Grandview (2nd team).Class 4A
Defending State Champion: D'Evelyn (Denver)Overview:
After five consecutive years of 4A crowning a champion from the Pikes Peak League, it was a Jeffco squad in D'Evelyn that brought home the title in 2017. … Jeffco squads made up three of the four semifinalists. The Jaguars went through No. 1 Valor Christian (Highlands Ranch)
to win their first championship. But the team will be without a handful of its top players from a year ago because of the Girls Development Academy. … Valor, Evergreen and Wheat Ridge each graduated its leading scorer, with the Cougars losing Player of the Year Sofia Weiner. … While Jeffco took its hits, Windsor
– the other semifinalist – is looking like it could be one of the teams to beat. The Wizards return their biggest scoring threats in Abby Gearhart
(33 goals), Meg Zimmerman
(26 goals) and Chaynee Kingsbury
(10 goals, 14 assists). The team only graduated two players. … Ponderosa (Parker)
came on strong in the postseason despite being the No. 20 seed. The Mustangs' leading scorer was a freshman in Jazlynn Ellis
(15 goals, 11 assists). … There have been a plethora of goals coming out of the South Central League early. Pueblo Centennial
has scored 32 goals through four games, with Kinley Carter
and Tori Mitrick
scoring eight apiece. Pueblo Central
sophomore Abby Gridley
leads the state with 10 goals.Returning All-State Players: Catherine Bakken
, Jr., George Washington (Denver)
(2nd team); Macie Browne
, Sr., Wheat Ridge
(2nd team); Abby Gearhart, Jr., Windsor (1st team); Lauryn Jeans
, Sr., Evergreen (2nd team); Chaynee Kingsbury, Sr., Windsor (2nd team).
Defending State Champion: The Academy (Westminster)Overview:
The Academy moves forward without Player of the Year Alex Loera, but the Wildcats still have some scoring punch. Senior Mandy Stricker
already owns four goals and nine assists in three victories. … The bad news for the rest of 3A is that the Metro League was young last year. Three teams from the league made it to the state semifinals, with Peak to Peak (Lafayette)
going to the title game. … Jefferson Academy (Broomfield)
, the top seed in 2017, returns three first-team all-state players, including leading scorer Mira Houck
(16 goals, 11 assists last spring). … The leading scorer for Kent Denver (Englewood)
last spring was a freshman. Annabelle Johnson
had 18 goals and 15 assists in helping the Sun Devils reach the semifinals. … Anna Ponzio
has scored six goals this season for Colorado Academy (Denver)
. The Mustangs were the No. 2 seed in 2017. … Brooklyn Mack
has Manitou Springs
off to a 3-0 start, with the senior scoring six goals in three games. The Mustangs were seeded third a year ago.Returning All-State Players: Emma Billings
, Sr., Kent Denver (1st team); Sidney Chong
, Jr., Kent Denver (2nd team); Jordan Deger
, Sr., Peak to Peak (1st team); Jaquelin Flores
, Jr., Lake County (Leadville)
(2nd team); Xiomara Haataja
, Sr., KIPP Denver Collegiate
(2nd team); Mira Houck, Jr., Jefferson Academy (1st team); Annabelle Johnson, Jr., Kent Denver (2nd team); Brooklynn Kirkpatrick
, So., Jefferson Academy (2nd team); Brooklyn Mack, Sr., Manitou Springs (1st team); Evangelia Sandoval
, Jr., The Academy (2nd team); Rachel Schlagel
, Sr., Jefferson Academy (1st team); Emma Shepherd
, Jr., Peak to Peak (2nd team); Maddie Sorensen
, Sr., DSST: Stapleton
(2nd team); Mandy Stricker, Sr., The Academy (2nd team).Class 2A
Defending State Champion: Denver ChristianOverview:
Denver Christian captured its first 2A state championship last spring, the school's first since taking the 3A crown in 2004. Reigning 2A Player of the Year Miranda Kortenhoeven
is one of four first-team all-state Thunder players back. Kortenhoeven scored 18 goals to go with 18 assists last spring, and Kara Amidon
had 25 goals as a freshman. … Dawson School (Lafayette)
, which has been the 2A runner-up in each of the classification's three seasons, lost leading scorer Hannah Isenhart (77 points) to graduation. Kaitlyn Day
scored 22 goals as a freshman though, and current freshman Degen Miller
already has eight. … Front Range Christian (Littleton)
returns all-state keeper Kami Quinn
. … Fountain Valley (Colorado Springs)
senior Ani Love
scored six goals against Ellicott.Returning All-State Players:
Kara Amidon, So., Denver Christian (1st team); Alex Dunbar
, So., Dawson School (1st team); Emma Haaland
, Sr., Ridgway
(1st team); Miranda Kortenhoeven, Sr., Denver Christian (1st team); McKenna Mueller
, Sr., Denver Christian (1st team); Samantha O'Brien
, Sr., Clear Creek (Evergreen)
(1st team); Grace Phillipps
, Jr., Denver Christian (1st team); Kami Quinn, Sr., Front Range Christian (1st team).