PHOENIX – The Phoenix College women’s soccer team knows a thing or two about perseverance.
While quarantined during the COVID-19 shutdown during the 2020 season, players trained together as a team in Zoom meeting rooms for “practice” at their respective homes. Later that same year, when the season resumed, none of the social-distance guidelines prevented the teams from coming in close contact with the program’s first Division III national title in history.
In mid-November, two years later, Phoenix College reached the pinnacle once again behind a 4-0 win against Holmes in a rematch of the 2020 final and sit on the brink of transforming the Bears into a dynasty.
For coach Chris Sagar, who is in his 16th season at Phoenix College, the program has come a long way to become a potential powerhouse on the pitch.
“We weren’t very good,” said Sagar, who earned the Coach of the Tournament award. “We worked really hard to build not just teams but the program in general to get the program where it is now. Some of the same attributes that we talked about in year one are the same ones we’re still working on in year 16.”
In this year’s title run, Phoenix advanced out of their pool with victories against No. 11 South Suburban and No. 7 Southwestern Illinois to earn a spot in the semifinals against Northwest Mississippi, before a 2-0 win set up the rematch against Holmes, the top seed in the tournament. Phoenix College leaned on its star players, Zalma Torres and Krystal Sanchez, throughout the postseason.
Torres, a striker, led by example throughout the four-game tournament to earn Most Valuable Player after netting eight total goals and contributing two assists. Sanchez took home defensive MVP honors.
Torres points to the team’s win-at-all-costs mindset as the reason it brought home the title.
“We were telling each other, play like it’s your last game ever,” Torres said.
Sanchez, originally an attacking player who converted to a defensive midfielder, says the team locked in for the four-game tournament in hopes of bringing home the ultimate prize – a national title.
“Everyone was there on time, we were all doing everything correctly, the practices were good, and we bonded really well as a team when we were there,” she says of the team’s focus.
The sophomore stats won’t return to next season, but the legacy they leave behind serves as a strong foundation for the returning and new Bears players. Division II players are granted two years of eligibility at a community college, where athletes hope to play well enough to earn a transfer to a four-year program.
Sanchez is in the process of figuring out where she will play next season, while Torres may have an opportunity to go professional in Mexico.
“I want to transfer, but I may also have an opportunity with a former coach to try out for a professional team in Mexico,” Sanchez says. “So I’m trying to get into that and see where life takes me.”
While Sagar is happy for Torres, the Phoenix College coach insists that more professional avenues from college should be available in the United States. At the moment, the only route for women to go pro in the U.S. is to apply for the NWSL draft, which requires athletes to be in their senior year of college to apply.
“I’d like to see more opportunities at the professional level for college students,” Sagar explained. “Z (Zalma) has the opportunity to potentially go pro but in Mexico. I’d like to see better avenues and pathways here from our college system to our pro league here.”
For next season, replacing Torres and Sanchez won’t be easy. If Phoenix College wants to flirt with another national title – their third in four years – and a potential dynasty, it has big shoes to replace and an even higher bar set for next season.