Rudy Schenk knows saying it is a cliche, but the East boys soccer coach still believes it to be true.
The 4A state tournament, which begins at 4 p.m. Wednesday at home sites, "is any team's race," he said. "There is a lot of parity, it seems like, and I think that is evident in the number of play-in games."
On Monday, Timpanogos and Orem, after both finishing 5-6-1 during the regular season, met for a third time in a fight for the final tournament berth from Region 7. Up north, Logan and Sky View played in the Region 5 finale, which was delayed over the weekend due to lightning, to determine whether Logan (8-3-0) or Box Elder (8-3-1) would enter as the league's top seed.
"Just last week," Schenk said, "Skyline dropped games to a couple of teams (Murray and Olympus) in their region and we dropped a game to Judge a few weeks back. This really is anybody's game — especially in the first round."
In spite of two one-goal upset losses in its final two games of league play that snapped an 11-match win streak, Skyline (10-2-0) still entered the state tournament as the top seed from Region 7. The Eagles will host Judge Memorial, the fourth-place team from Region 6 that shocked the Leopards midway through the season.
"You never want to say losing is OK," Schenk said of that game, "but we learned from it and it was a chance to refocus and regroup."
Prior to their meeting with Judge, the Leopards had won nine straight, shutting out three of those opponents.
"I think my guys got a little complacent that day," the coach said. "Judge came out and punched us in the mouth, and I think it helped us. We learned a lesson and reset our sights on winning a region title."
East won its final six matches, including a second victory over rival and defending 4A champion Bountiful, to claim Region 6's top seed entering the tournament, and a home game in the first round of the playoffs.
"One loss in the middle of an undefeated season isn't always a bad thing," he said. "It was a good learning experience for us."
And now, as the season ramps up to a new level, the Leopards are leaning on their seniors for their postseason experience.
"I put the onus on them to be the leaders in practice, in everything," Schenk said.
"Erik Hulbert has been playing well for us," Schenk said, noting his two goals, "and we even have a freshman contributing goals for us."
Matt Barker, the freshman, has scored four times for the Leopards in his first year with the team, which will meet Timpanogos, the winner of the play-in game against Orem, 5-1.
Alex Simpson, who leads all of 4A in scoring with 18 goals, and Bountiful will face Murray, the third seed from Region 7. Wasatch, in its first year in 4A and home to Ben Hill, the goalkeeper leading 4A in shutouts with seven, finished third in Region 8 and will meet the Box Elder, the No. 2 seed from Region 5 after losing to Logan, 2-1, in double overtime.
After losing the first two games of the season — to 3A champion Dixie and to 3A semifinalist Pine View — Maple Mountain has since won 12 of its last 13 en route to the Region 8 championship. The Golden Eagles (11-1-0, 12-3-0 overall) are led in scoring by Christian Tobler, who has nine goals this season, and will host Ogden, the No. 4 seed from Region 5, in the opening round.
"You have Bountiful, the defending champions; the northern region (Region 5) is always tough as nails; Olympus is always good; Skyline has come on strong; and Maple Mountain's record speaks for itself," Schenk said. "It's pretty wide open. I'm excited to see how it unfolds."
Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.