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Montezuma-Cortez girls soccer sets high bar for season

Montezuma-Cortez senior Baylee Littlefield receives a congratulatory hug from head coach Reese Smith after the Panthers' 6-1 home win April 29 over Ignacio. Each awaiting a similar squeeze from the skipper are fellow seniors, from left, Olivia Cosner, Allie Kibel and Madison Sitton. (Joel Priest/Special to The Journal)
Defending Southwest League champs seek to repeat

From no program to top of the heap, the 12-month turnaround for Montezuma-Cortez High School girls soccer turned plenty of heads this past spring.

Now, the Panthers won’t be sneaking up on anyone. As defending 3A Southwest League champions, second-year head coach Reese Smith knows his Panthers will have a target on their backs as they aim to repeat in 2023.

The two-year hiatus, followed by the immediate success on the field, has generated a new level of excitement for the girls, as the program will draw in talent from M-CHS, Dolores and home schools to compete under the orange-and-black banner. Seeing numbers near 40 student-athletes in the early stages of the season makes it clear that soccer has reestablished roots in Montezuma County.

“All of last year’s success really helped drive a lot of interest in the program,” said Smith, “and we’ve developed a mentor program between our girls, where they’re able to support one another and keep each other accountable, even if they aren’t going to the same school.”

Montezuma-Cortez's Jordi Mahler (30) wards off Ignacio's Jillian Middlebrook (18) and others to control the ball during action April 29 at M-CHS. (Joel Priest/Special to The Journal)

On top of the influx of new talent, the Panthers return the majority of their goals from a season ago, where the Panthers averaged better than two goals per game. Jordi Mahler led the way with a dozen tallies from a season ago, while Sophia Shepard looks to be a force up top for the Panthers attack as well after scoring three times last year, while adding a team-best five assists.

The Panthers developed during its 8-5 campaign, with a sparkling 5-1 record in league play, advancing to the regional round of the 3A state tournament, thanks to an improved back line.

Senior Jayden Thomason helped stabilize the Panthers back four, and looks to again be an anchor for Smith’s formation.

Sophia Shepard of Montezuma-Cortez breaks toward the goal with Pagosa Springs defenders in pursuit at M-CHS on April 26. (Ben Bradley/Special to The Journal)

“Both Jayden and Sophia have really excelled for us as leaders, both in terms of showing their teammates how we want to execute on the field,” said Smith, “but more importantly, they’ve helped the girls develop cohesion and stay focused on our common goals, especially for as many first-time student athletes as we have this year – we need that steady influence.”

Goalkeeper Aubrey Rutherford also played a huge part in a M-CHS hot streak that propelled them to the league title, collecting over 100 saves.

“We have big goals again this year,” added Smith, alluding to ambitions of back-to-back league crowns, “but the higher the goal, the better you tend to do – and we hope we can balance those goals while being able to have fun.”

M-CHS enjoys a bundle of home matches to open the season, as the Panthers host Ridgway for a 4 p.m. match on Wednesday, March 15, then Ignacio on the following afternoon, also at 4 p.m. Big regional matches at Telluride on March 30 and at home with Delta April 1 set the Panthers up for league play, which commences on Saturday, April 8 at home against Pagosa Springs.