The Dallas Morning News

Rockwall-heath aims for first soccer title

Team came together after rough stretch, stands on verge of title

- By GREG RIDDLE Staff Writer griddle@dallasnews.com

Rockwall-heath had one bad week in early March and hasn’t lost since, earning a place in today’s Class 6A boys soccer final.

As Rockwall-heath boys soccer coach Phil Duhon addressed his team at halftime on March 5, the season was starting to spiral out of control, and Duhon implored his players to find some answers.

“I’m looking at my team and said, ‘I’ve yelled at you, I’ve been nice to you, I’ve cried for you. I’ve done everything, and yet we still can’t live up to our potential. What is going on?’ ” Duhon said.

Heath lost 3-1 to rival Rockwall that night, completing an eight-day stretch in which Heath was 0-4-1 while making up games that had been postponed because of the winter storm that devastated North Texas. Heath had to play every school day but one, and it lost one game on a goal with one second left.

Luckily for Heath, the Rockwall game was the last time it would play for two weeks because of spring break and then an open date in its schedule.

“We’ve been a good team all year, and we had one really bad week. Everything went against us,” Duhon said. “When we came back, we talked about how that wasn’t really us. That week wasn’t the truth, the rest of the season was the truth. Let’s come together and go out and prove it.

“It looked awful, but I knew that the ability to be special was always there.”

Heath hasn’t lost since, even though its roster has been ravaged by injuries. On Saturday,

Heath has a chance to make UIL history if it can beat San Antonio L.E.E. (27-1) in the Class 6A state championsh­ip game at 6 p.m. at Birkelbach Field in Georgetown.

Heath (15-8-5) is the first Rockwall ISD soccer team, boys or girls, to reach a state championsh­ip game. If it wins Saturday, Heath would have the most losses and fewest wins by any boys soccer state champion in UIL history. Boys soccer became a UIL sport in 1983.

The UIL lists team records for state semifinali­sts in boys soccer going back as far as 2002. In that time, no team in the largest classifica­tion had more than six losses going into the state final four, until Heath won six straight playoff games — four by one goal or in a shootout — after entering the playoffs with a 9-8-5 record.

But don’t call this a Cinderella story, even though Heath went 0-4-3 in its final seven regular-season games and entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed from District 10-6A. Heath thought it was a state title contender all along.

“We knew that no matter what happened in district, it didn’t matter when we came to the playoffs. Records didn’t matter. We knew we had to play our game,” said Junior Tovar, a junior who plays the first half of games as part of a goalkeeper rotation before being replaced by sophomore Eli Finley. “We had to prove those people

wrong who were calling us a Cinderella team.”

Heath has had to juggle its lineup because of injuries, and seniors Brock Bernard and Jose Miguel Ramirez have been willing to play all over the field.

Bernard was an outside back in the regular season, but has played wing, forward and midfield in the playoffs. Ramirez has seen time at center back, outside back and in the midfield. Bernard is the team’s only college signee, bound for College of the Ozarks.

The team has played all season without senior Gabriel Anguiano, who was going to start at holding midfielder until he tore his ACL. Another midfielder, junior Corey Kossowski, is out with a stress reaction in his leg after barely playing in the playoffs, and senior winger JC Contreras has missed all of

the postseason with a broken foot.

Normal center back Gavin Blair played four positions in Tuesday’s shootout win over Allen in the state semifinal before injuring his ankle late in regulation. Duhon thinks the senior will be able to play Saturday.

Rockwall-heath also had to contend with a large portion of its roster splitting time between the high school team and the Dallas Cup club tournament, which was March 28 through April 4. Heath played its first four playoff games from March 26 to April 6.

“I had 13 players on my roster that were involved in Dallas Cup. Some of those guys played six games in eight days,” Duhon said of the combined Heath and Dallas Cup schedule. “I don’t understand why Dallas

Cup can’t delay their tournament a couple of weeks. It hurts both of us.”

Rockwall-heath hasn’t been a high-scoring team, scoring 37 goals in 28 games. Senior midfielder Chris Rodriguez, who has 12 goals, is the only player with more than six.

But the defense has found another level, allowing one goal in 520 minutes of regulation and overtime in the playoffs, after giving up 30 goals in the regular season.

“Defensivel­y, I think we’ve buckled down, we’ve taken things more seriously,” Finley said. “It started with our midfield. They’ve gotten more strict on coming back and holding down the back to help us.”

Heath had not won a playoff game since 2015 before this year. It finished last in its district in 2017 and 2018, then hired Duhon as its coach before the 2019 season after he spent five years as the head coach at Austin Westwood.

“His demeanor, the way he approached the game, the way he treated kids was very attractive to us,” Rockwall ISD director of athletics Russ Reeves said.

Heath made the playoffs in Duhon’s first season, and even though it lost in the first round, the turnaround had begun.

“The talent was here. It has always been here,” Duhon said. “The players just needed someone to point them in the right direction.”

The only team state titles for Rockwall ISD in the last decade were won by Rockwallhe­ath in boys wrestling in 2016 and in baseball in 2012. Now, the soccer team has a chance to be an inspiratio­n for all sports in the district, and to provide lifetime memories for the players involved.

“They would be able to tell their kids and grandkids about how they came out of nowhere to win the state championsh­ip, and everybody thought they were Cinderella, but they knew they were going to win it all along,” Duhon said.

 ?? Brandon Wade/special Contributo­r ?? Senior Brock Bernard (right) has played multiple positions to help lead a playoff surge that has carried Rockwall-heath from a 9-8-5 regular-season record to the Class 6A final.
Brandon Wade/special Contributo­r Senior Brock Bernard (right) has played multiple positions to help lead a playoff surge that has carried Rockwall-heath from a 9-8-5 regular-season record to the Class 6A final.

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