The Cleveland High state champs hold the banners signifying their 5A title. (Herron photo)


ALBUQUERQUE – Yeah, maybe it is a cliché, but “Defense wins championships” is the best way to describe what the 2023 Cleveland High School girls’ soccer team proved.

And when one of your veteran defenders scores the game’s only goal, that’s more than icing on the proverbial cake.

If you don’t score, you can’t win is another way to put it, and when the Storm chalked up their sixth straight shutout, a 1-0 victory over La Cueva (19-3-1) in the Class 5A championship game Saturday at UNM, that blue trophy was all theirs.

The Storm (22-1) had just won their 18th game in a row, and it was their 12th shutout of the season; the last goal that found the Storm’s net was back on Oct. 14. It more than avenged the Storm’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Bears in the 2017 championship game and erased for upperclassmen the frustration of their 2022 loss to Eldorado, determined via penalty kicks.

Coach Greg Rusk, with more than 150 wins as the Storm’s head coach, knew what holding a blue trophy was like. From 1990-94, when he was at La Cueva, his Bears won it all in 1990-91 and 1993-94, and shared it with Eldorado after a 1-1 draw in 1992 – before PKs settled 100-minute contests.

Only two teams scored as many as two goals against the champs in the 23-game season: Hobbs, which lost a 4-2 contest to the Storm in the APS Metro Silver bracket, and Rio Rancho, also by the same score in a loss at CHS on Oct. 14. Hope Christian, the Class 3A state champ, handed CHS its only loss, 1-0, in APS Metro pool play.

The Storm got the only goal they’d need in the game’s 28th minute, tallied by senior defender Rylie Pengelly.

Pengelly and her back line teammates did the rest, and goalkeeper, sophomore Madison Johnson, needed to make just four saves along the way.

“It really is a function of both the team’s defensive play – the three in the back – and our goalkeeper, and you saw the importance of our goalkeeper today,” coach Greg Rusk said. “Our defense gave La Cueva a glimmer (of hope), and La Cueva took it and Maddie (Johnson) came up huge, tipping it over the bar.”

Asked when he thought his team had the potential to take home the blue trophy, he said, “At the Academy tournament.

“Winning in double-overtime against Academy, when the girls said, ‘We don’t want to go to penalty kicks (to decide a winner), and it didn’t happen. Ella (Lent-Koop) made it happen. So that’s when, ‘Oh, this team has a little bit more moxie than in the past.’”

Lent-Koop scored in the 99th minute in that memorable 2-1 win over the Chargers.

Pengelly agreed with the timing.

“After we won the Academy tournament, we kind of had that momentum going, because we kind of lost that momentum when we lost Metro,” she said, “but after we won the Academy tournament, it kinda gave us that little push: We realized, this is our season – it’s now or never.”

She was proud to be a key cog in the team’s back line.

“We’ve been working on it day by day,” she said. “Every day at practice we work on defense a lot, making sure that we stay compact, so we don’t give them that middle line, and we stay together; we work as a unit.

“We’re one big family back there; we’re one big family as a team, but our back line is so tight that it helps us win these games because we trust each other.”

On the way to the championship game …

Cleveland 3, Eldorado 0: In a Class 5A semifinal game played Nov. 8 at Cleveland, two goals by senior Sienna Salazar and one from fellow senior Alexus Guillen avenged No. 1 Cleveland’s championship loss to the Eagles last season and advanced them into the Class 5A title game.

Salazar’s unassisted goal in the game’s 18th minute proved to be the only goal CHS would need, as it won for the 39th time in its last 43 games.

She made it 2-0 in the second minute of the second half, with an assist going to Guillen. In the 55th minute, Guillen made it 3-0, off a great feed from Taylor Williamson.

Of her first tally, which came off a stop and carom off EHS goalkeeper Caitlin Sanchez, Salazar said, “It felt like it was an eternity, that ball coming to me.

“I was so scared. But I told myself, ‘Don’t put it over. Don’t put it over.’ And I didn’t put it over.”

The Storm were relentless throughout the game, with sophomore goalkeeper Madison Johnson rarely challenged by the No. 4 Eagles (16-5).

She finished with five saves for the game, with two of the latter ones routine chest-high catches.

“This game, we played the way we like to play,” Rusk said. “We attacked in multiple different ways. We played great team defense, starting with our forward line. … It was really that team effort – not a single person went out there to win it be themselves.”