Eastern Arizona high school soccer players just might have some new rivals to contend with next year.

After three years of playing Freeport-McMoRan’s soccer team, the AIA has agreed to allow Morenci High School’s club team to join 2A region play. If the school board agrees, the Wildcats will take to the field sometime next year.

Morenci kids have the opporunity to play soccer from kindergarten through sixth grade through the town’s recreation center, but there were no other opportunities for them to play competitively after that until three years ago.

Sad because his daughter, Isabella, couldn’t play any longer, Maurizio Ciriello, a Freeport employee and life-long soccer fan, sought out and received permission to start a club at the high school.

Isabella graduated in 2019, but now Ciriello’s son, Matteo, 16, is one of the team’s goalies and team captains.

The team has grown from 11 kids the team’s first year to 22 kids this year, Ciriello said. His coaching staff has grown, too. A handful of Freeport employee /players have joined him. His wife, Amy, the school’s office manager, is a referee and the team’s manager.

This season the team played Freeport 16 times over the last five weeks; their final game was Thursday night. They ended their season by playing against the “Morenci Dreamers,” a team comprised of their coaches, local law enforcement officers, teachers and other members of the community.

Ciriello is hopeful the school board will agree to allow the team to play competitively. The district paid for the team’s one set of uniforms.

“There’s buy in from the district. There’s definite buy in, but we have to prove that we can keep the numbers up, which I think we’ve done pretty good this year,” Ciriello said.

The difference between the team’s first year and now is like night and day, Ciriello said.

“We had a very small team and they had to play a lot, we didn’t have subs,” Ciriello said. “Watching my seniors, it’s just impressive. They’ve grown so much as a team and they’ve been such great kids to coach. It makes it worthwhile.”

Assistant coaches Sarah McCargish and Manuel Valle joined Ciriello this year after having played the kids last year as FMI players. Despite the fact some of their FMI co-workers have played soccer professionally, they never took it easy on the kids, they said.

The first couple of years Freeport would win by double digits, but not this year, McCargish said.

“Some games have been super close, 5-6, 5-7 and last night’s game it was the lowest score FMI has ever had, three. You can tell they were sweating it because it was 2-2 up until the last few minutes and then FMI got their game-winning point. It was a tight, tight game. The kids have come really far,” she said.

Ciriello said he doesn’t necessarily think his kids will have an advantage if they get to play other high school teams, however.

“We may not win a lot of games, but we’ll make it known that we were there because FMI is on a whole different level. These guys play all over the world. They’ve been playing since they were in diapers. It’s been a challenge but my kids have held their own. We’ve done great,” he said.

Plus, it’s not about the end result, anyway, Ciriello said.

“It’s not about wins and losses for me, it’s just showing they’ve got passion and they keep playing the game and they play it smart,” Ciriello said. “If we get a couple of wins out of it, great, if not, that’s OK. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about playing a game that I love, that they love.”

Morenci senior Marco Valle, 18, and Matteo Ciriello, said it’s been challenging to play Freeport’s team, but it gave them the opportunity to become better players.

“We used to not stand a chance against them, but now we fight for it,” Valle said.

Sophomore Josh Biggs and senior Alfredo Vigo both said the Freeport players have always been good about offering advice and encouragement. They discuss strategy a lot and the need to communicate.

Katherine Lara, a 15-year-old sophomore defensive player, joined the team after losing interest in cheerleading. She’d never played before.

“I tried it out one day and I instantly fell in love with the sport. It was a safe place from day one where if I had anger, I could get it out,” Lara said. “I would go to practice with a smile and come out with an even bigger smile and it’s just a good place for me to be at.”

Valeria Zegarra, a 14-year-old sophomore, began playing left wing for the team after another player on the team encouraged her to come out for the sport.

Surprisingly, Zegarra said she turned out to be a far better than she thought she would be. She, Aurora Bennett, 16, and Lara have also found that soccer keeps them in better shape for track and cross country season.

Clifton Police Chief Omar Negrete has been coming out to watch the team play. He also played against the team during the final game last year and again this year and has seen the strides they’ve made.

“I’m very much afraid of them right now,” Negrete said before heading onto the field.

As it turns out, the kids won, 6-3.

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