After a dominant season, St. Joseph will return to the championship for the first time since 2012 after a dominant 8-0 victory over No. 7 Millard.

The Jayhawks entered the 2021 tournament as the No. 1 seed but fell in the semifinals in a penalty shootout. This year they left no doubt that they deserve to be one of the final two teams standing.

The Millard defense started the game off with a clear strategy as they elected to use St. Joseph’s speed and aggression against them, looking to force the Jayhawks’ offsides. 

It worked to varying degrees as the Eagles forced over a half-dozen offside calls. However this also left their opponent with some great scoring opportunities. Over the first 15 minutes of the game they weren’t able to convert, missing on multiple chances.

“Our team is anxious, we want to score early. When the first goal doesn’t come, we can rush things. If you look at our whole season you will see how important that first goal is and how it makes our life easier,” St. Joseph coach Paul Franco said.

The constant pressure, however, finally yielded results when a 16th-minute cross from Daniel Fontes to Ricardo Aparicio found its way to the back of the net. A few minutes later Aparicio put another one in and the Jayhawks never looked back as they quickly built a dominant lead.

“We were starting off very slow at the start and had a couple of chances, I had a couple that I missed,” Aparicio said. 

“After that I was really eager to go back and get one. Daniel Fontes and Jonny Ramirez crossed a couple in and I was able to tap them in. That put us in the right mindset.” 

Toward the end of the half, St. Joseph was able to add another three goals. Fontes took a quick up-and-over pass from Ramirez and scored with a nice finish and then less than 60 seconds later, he completed the brace with a strong coast-to-coast goal.  

A corner kick from Eddie Ramirez to Keaton Gill pushed the lead to five.

Down five at the half, Millard didn’t give up and continued to fight, constantly putting pressure with tight defense and counter attack offensive opportunities. St. Joseph goalkeeper Josh Ortiz made some nice defensive plays as the defense earned its sixth shutout of the season.

Ortiz, who was the goalie for the semifinal shootout last year, has taken on a leadership role on this team.

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“Last year we got knocked out and I knew we didn’t want this again. With some new freshman players, our versatility is a big strength of this team and we can play in a lot of different ways,” Ortiz said before commenting about the mindset of winning every 50-50 ball.

“We wanted us to have our highest press and the most active game we could possibly have.” 

Eventually the Jayhawks would score their eighth and final goal with just a tad under 12 minutes left in the second half. Jonny Ramirez had a nice strike from 30 yards out and then the game would end on a Fontes tap in that completed his hat trick.

In the other semifinal, Rowland Hall picked up their third straight upset victory with a win over American Heritage. Charles Frech assisted Luke Muhlestein and Jack Vitek for goals, with one coming in each half. 

“Last year we got knocked out and I knew we didn’t want this again. With some new freshman players, our versatility is a big strength of this team and we can play in a lot of different ways.” — St. Joseph goalkeeper Josh Ortiz

Despite being the No. 9 seed, the Winged Lions have felt good during their entire playoff run.

“We knew coming in that we played all the top teams really close all season, so to us it isn’t (an upset),” said Rowland Hall coach Joe Murray on the confidence of his team throughout the playoffs.

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These two teams will meet on Wednesday afternoon at Rio Tinto to determine the 2A state championship. Both teams will have under 24 hours of rest and recovery from their semifinal battles.

Murray had much to say about his team’s anticipation of playing for a title.

“We are pumped, we are ready to go,” Murray said. 

“We have improved game-by-game throughout the season. This is it, this is what it is all about. This is what these guys have played for all year.”

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