NATHANIEL MATA | STAFF WRITER

McALLEN — On the goal that sent McAllen High to the state tournament, Westyn Henderson lobbed a soaring pass to Ava Alaniz, who dribbled in and finished low to lift the Bulldogs to soccer’s final weekend.

Henderson, who was elusive and difficult to defend at regionals, and Alaniz, a central midfielder who didn’t seem fazed by the strength of San Antonio Johnson or Austin Lake Travis, are both in their second year of high school.

Youth is a trend for McHi, as the team has nine sophomores on the varsity roster and will lose only five players to graduation.  Freshmen outnumber juniors six to four.

The young Bulldogs are set to compete in the Class 6A state semifinals against Houston Memorial at 9:30 a.m. Friday, and Andrea Soto said that her sophomore class is setting the foundation for McHi to continue to be a top team for years.

“It feels pretty good,” Soto said. “I think it kind of sheds lights on how there’s a lot more to come, especially in future generations that are coming in. I’m just happy we made an impact so early, so in the next years, hopefully, we can progress.”

Andrea Soto and her triplet sisters Sophia and Giselle make up one-third of the Bulldogs’ sophomore core.  

Goalkeeper Lexi Gonzalez, midfielder Rachel Torres, Sarahi Acosta and forward Mireya Ramirez, a key midseason addition to varsity, are the remaining sophomores.

Andrea Soto said building chemistry was easy because most of the 2020 class had played on the pitch together before putting on purple and gold. She said they had already been exposed to high levels of skill.

“All of us sophomores played club soccer together,” Andrea Soto said.  “So we were kind of already used to the environment of really hard and high-skill-level play. We were kind of already used to playing against girls from up north, like San Antonio.”

That experience, plus the sour taste left from last season’s 3-0 loss to Austin Vandegrift in the regional semifinals, helped prepare McHi for this year’s playoff run.

Junior defender Emily Gurwitz said watching the 2020 class make an impact has been exciting.

“It’s such a turnaround from last year. Well, last year we improved a lot, but from my freshman year, it was really different,” Gurwitz said. “We tied five times in district play. We lost in the area round. It really was a different team, and having these girls come in and contribute so early has really changed our program. It’s awesome to watch. They improve a lot, especially throughout the season.”

Bulldogs coach Pat Arney said he’s learned through his 22 years coaching at the school that a special team needs a special class to grow together and carry the load.

“When you have a nice long run and a few years when you have a long run, you really need one class that is large,” Arney said. “From 2004-07, we had that ‘07 group that was great, and there were like eight or nine of them. That can really lead to stability and continuity and being able to continue these long runs, and these girls know that.”

Arney said another coach within the school district remarked how impressed he was to see so many 10th-graders contributing at the varsity level. Arney knows that club soccer participation helps, but even his team has plenty of room for growth.

“They play at a high level at the club, and I certainly think that helps,” Arney said. “They crack under pressure a little bit, too. They’re young, and we’ve made some mistakes certainly, but I think it’s all a growing process. The longer we go this year, the more we’ve matured. I can see a huge difference from the second round in Harlingen to what we did this weekend. It’s nice to see them grow as soccer players, even in a couple of weeks.”

 nmata@themonitor.com