MARANA — Maricopa coach Cortney Kellenaers called his team’s 4-0 loss to Gilbert to end the regular season the worst game his team played all year. It turned out to be the reason the Rams had to play their 5A state playoffs play-in round game on the road in the first place.

The Rams seemed to learn from that experience in a big way Thursday, controlling the playoff game against the Marana Tigers and winning 4-1. Sophomore McKinley Hacker led the way with two goals, including setting the tone of the offense with some audacious shot attempts.

“I think it gives us a lot of confidence to go into the playoffs and just beat up (a team) in a game,” Hacker said. “We’re prepared for the next game, we’re having fun in practice, and we’re doing good.”

In what would be the biggest struggle for the Rams’ defense throughout the night, the Tigers maintained early offensive pressure by sprinting down the sidelines and crossing just in front of the goal, but keeper Jessica Taylor remained steady and handled everything that came in front of her.

Hacker opened up the scoring a little more than 10 minutes into the game, winning the ball off a header then dribbling until she was 15 yards from goal. She took the shot and it curled into the right side of the net.

The game stagnated a bit at that point until the final five minutes of the first half when Maricopa opened things up. First, Saneya Cowing chased down a long ball and lobbed it over the Tigers keeper. Marana defender Rebecca Quast tried to head the ball away from the line, but it wound up going in for an own goal.

Then just three minutes later, the Rams won a free kick on the edge of the box. Anna Kramarczyk took the kick and appeared to be crossing the ball to her teammates. However, the ball kept sailing, and it went just beyond the keeper’s outstretched hand for an improbable goal.

“The energy was definitely in the right place,” Kellenaers said. “We definitely saw them going forward more when that happened. It was when they went to a preventative defense and let up a bit that we gave them opportunities.”

Those opportunities would come more and more in the second half, as the Tigers took advantage of what the Rams were giving them on the edges. The pressure really kicked up 10 minutes into the half. First, a ball bounced off the crossbar. Then, Laura Prosser secured a lob pass into the box and rolled the ball into the goal to get Marana on the board.

“Being up 3-0 at halftime is tough, because you start to get comfortable,” Kellenaers said. “I think you saw the energy levels drop a lot more in the second half, so it wasn’t as pretty as I would have liked.”

The goal seemed to give the Tigers more pep in their step, as they pressed to get the game within one goal. The Rams were often forced to clear the ball instead of maintaining a lot of possession.

Then, Hacker once again stepped up and put the team on her back. With 10:40 left in the game and the ball at her feet 35 yards from goal, she saw a chance to take back control. Her long shot felt like it was in the air forever, and ultimately it deflected off the jumping keeper’s fingertips and into the top of the goal.

“I saw a goal, and I went for it,” Hacker said. “I was like, ‘OK, is this going in?’ And I watched it, and I knew it was.”

The Rams ran the clock out from there and celebrated at midfield, having accomplished their preseason goal of winning a playoff game. It remains to be seen who they will play in the next game at 2 p.m. Saturday, but it will very likely be against one of the top teams in the state.

Kellenaers plans to take an unconventional approach to that game. He said he’ll set the starting lineup and make the substitutions, but besides that it will be up to the players how the game goes. They will decide the formation and their playing style.

“I want to give them ownership,” Kellenaers said. “I need to get the underclassmen more confidence, the willingness to step into leadership roles. As much as I want this season to continue, I also have to prepare for next season and get them ready.”