Something happened in 2019 on the way to Arizona Western’s typical march to the Region I Playoffs…they just kept going.
In 15 seasons under Head Coach Kenny Dale:
The Matadors have had years with more wins and years with fewer losses.
But the 2019 squad was rich with talent as 17 different players scored at least one goal and 15 of those registered at least one assist.
And defensively three different keepers combined to keep eight clean sheets.
The season started with clean sheets, but AWC returned from an opening trip to Nevada at 0-1-1 with a late overtime goal the only scoring on either side in a loss to the hosts from Southern Nevada.
Returning to Arizona brought the offense to life as the Matadors piling up 52 goals winning 10 of their next 11 matches, launching into conference play with five straight wins.
Sophomore Esteban Franco scored all seven of his goals in that stretch including two multi-goal games with a hat trick in a route of South Mountain and two more on the road at Paradise Valley.
Midfielder Ridwane Boukraa was equally impressive, but the freshman really shined in Conference play including a three-game stretch in which he racked up 13 of 16 conference points including five goals.
But that ten game stretch also saw the emergence of Freshman Forward Michele Signorelli. The Italian native provided the deciding goal in three of the wins and was unstoppable in a five goal performance over South Mountain.
That stretch culminated in a thrilling 1-0 win over conference foe Phoenix in Yuma as Jesus Chillon provided the difference.
The Matadors were unbeaten in conference play and catapulted to #13 in the NJCAA polls as the lone unbeaten in the daunting ACCAC.
But a 1-3-1 record over the final five matches of the season dropped them from 1st to 4th in the ACCAC playoffs.
The Matadors remained confident finishing the season in 4th place while extending their consecutive postseason streak to 12 years.
To top, Western earned a home playoff game as Paradise Valley came to Yuma to open the Region I Playoffs. An early goal from Leo Amaral proved to be plenty, but Arizona Western tacked on two more to advance to the Semi-Finals.
The road the rest of the way would pit the Matadors against some of the top teams in the country with the conference champion Phoenix Bears hosting the third match of the year between the two sides.
The Matadors found themselves down two goals before an inspired comeback. Australian Keeper Duro Dragicevic had already earned Region I Goalkeeper of the Year Honors, but kept the Matadors in the game with 12 saves setting up a golden goal by Amaral.
Western was not through the woods just yet as the Region I Final took place in Tucson against defending National Champion Pima who had just fended off AWC to close the regular season.
A marathon contest saw the teams battle neck and neck for the Region Championship without a goal through 90 minutes and then the two overtimes.
It came down to penalties as the two teams exchanged goals.
The final Pima shot sailed high and Arizona Western captured its first Region Championship since 2010.
It also setup a chance for AWC to make it to the National Tournament. Standing in their way were the #3 ranked Salt Lake Bruins, undefeated, and at home at Zion’s Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah.
However it was the Matadors, ranked at 18 in the NJCAA polls who stunned the country with a trio of goals, even one while managing with just 10 players. Western held off the favored Bruins with just nine players and captured the first district championship in program history.
What’s more, it sent AWC to Tyler, Texas to the NJCAA National Championship. Although the Matadors would fall short, it was a historic season for the Matador strikers.
Dragicevic and Signorelli, who led the conference in goals, were recognized on the first teams of the All-ACCAC and All-Region I Squads, while Captain Derek Fournier landed on the second team and Defender Jed Bowman made Honorable mention.
Fournier and Bowman were joined by Boukraa and Kristian Recci on the United Soccer Coaches All-West Region Team. Fournier was named a second team All-American by the United Soccer Coaches.
But perhaps nobody raked in more accolades than Head Coach Kenny Dale for unifying the deep roster for the remarkable run. Dale was recognized by the NJCAA as the District Coach of the Year and by the United Soccer Coaches as the West Region Coach of the Year in a season that he captured his 200th career win and second Region Championship at Arizona Western.
While the incredible run came to an end in Texas, the Matadors certainly left their mark in 2019.