Thunder Ridge vs Highland soccer

Players react to Thunder Ridge player Carlos Carmona's goal as the Titans played Highland Thursday night in the 5A District 5-6 championship at the Idaho Falls Soccer Complex.

IDAHO FALLS -- As his team feverishly whisked on beanies, jackets and sweatpants, Mark Muzzo did a lap around his team’s bench and met their somber faces with a message.

“Hey, we still have a chance on Saturday.”

On Thursday, with a spot in the state tournament on the line, the Rams fell to Thunder Ridge (12-2-2, 4-2-2) 5-0. The Trojans pressured and attacked the ball with a fury Highland didn’t match. Thunder Ridge played in the Highland zone for probably 75 percent of the game, which led to only two or three shots on goal from the Rams.

And, because of that, Thunder Ridge, a school that has only been around for three years, earned a state bid for the third time.

“We are ready for it. We’re hungry,” said Thunder Ridge coach Corey Toldson. “Every year we get to state, it hasn’t gone our way (The Titans have been two-and-out in their previous two trips), but we’ve got a mountain to climb and we’re ready to climb it.”

The loss Thursday presents Highland with a second chance. On Saturday, the Rams will travel to Madison for an 11 a.m. kickoff with implications. Winner goes to state. Loser goes home. For Highland (2-11-1, 1-7), it’s the same reward from Thursday with a much more dire consequence.

“(My message to them) is, ‘Keep your heads up. We have another chance for another bid to state,’” Muzzo said. “We can do this. We’ve already done it against the top team in the district (Idaho Falls), why not keep going.”

That was the best pep-talk he had at the moment. The only one worth repeating, at least. The last thing he wanted to do was take their young minds back to the game they just finished, the one where they did their best impersonations of extras.

Muzzo looked befuddled postgame trying to describe their play, how they seemed to turn a complete 180 from the hungry youth-laden team that aggressively pushed and knocked off Idaho Falls on Saturday.

“We just don’t play well at night. And they’re cold,” Muzzo said with a chuckle.

Then he started to describe the magnitude of the moment. You see, Highland wasn’t supposed to be where they were Thursday. Downing Idaho Falls might have been the biggest district tournament surprise in all of Idaho.

Consider this — the Rams started their season with a COVID-19 quarantine, followed by eight straight losses, and didn’t record a win until the final game of their regular season. Meanwhile, Thunder Ridge, as a school, has never missed a boys soccer state tournament.

Perhaps it was naive to believe there wouldn’t be nerves for Highland.

“It was like uncharted waters for us (even being here),” Muzzo said. “I think the boys, they were excited about tonight’s game and Thunder was more focused and we just weren’t. You could tell in warmups, just leading up to everything.

“They played aggressively. We played too much finesse, and we should have played more aggressively and matched their physical play … They’re talented players and when you give those types of players too much space and they’re going to do what they want.”

They did. Sophomore Carlos Carmona started the scoring, following up a 35-yard shot from senior midfielder Nate Thompson that clanked off the crossbar. With Highland goalie David Staats still near the post, Carmona darted forward and sunk an easy goal. In the second half, Thompson sprinted along the sideline, with the ball at his feet and a defender on his hip. A few yards away from the end line, he sent a beautiful left-footed cross into the box. Sitting on the back post, sophomore Diamond Espinoza booted it in.

Those were the memorable scores for Thunder Ridge. Junior Kaegan Burtenshaw also added one and Thompson, probably the player of the match, netted a pair for the Titans.

“You see Nate everywhere,” Toldson said. “He has really stepped up this season and has been a dominating force on the field … My other midfielders are key supporters in that and they’ve just learned to play a ball through and then just go win it."

It was that aggression that doomed Highland on Thursday and that aggression that Muzzo hopes his team employs on Saturday.

In his team's two wins -- both against Idaho Falls -- they were fast, physical and bodied their opponents. To make it to the state tournament, Muzzo knows the Rams are going to have to do it again.

"If we bodied our men, you'd see a different result," he said.