Heavy rainfall that pounded the region during the day on Thursday, March 1 cleared away just in time for an evening start to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V soccer championship game – but West Campus still managed to rain on Escalon’s parade.
The Trans-Valley League champion Cougars – who had dispatched Delhi and Highlands in the opening two rounds of playoff action – were shut out in the finale by West Campus, 2-0.
Top ranked West Campus definitely had a fight on its hands, the Cougars keeping them off the scoreboard throughout the first half. But the defending champion Warriors got a fortuitous bounce on their first goal and put the game away on a furious scramble in front of the net late in the second half.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the guys,” said head coach Paul Silva, who for the second year in a row saw his Cougars battle all the way to the Section final, only to come up a bit short. “They gave me all they could, I couldn’t have asked for any more.”
That included a gutsy performance from the nation’s leading scorer, Guillermo Alvarez, who battled through a calf strain that kept him at less than 100 percent; Hector Rodriguez, playing his final game for the Cougars and giving one of his best efforts of the season; and Jonathan Valeriano, who used a booming kick to get the Cougars close to cashing in on more than one occasion. Daniel Galvan played tremendous defense, said Silva, and Jose Mendez also made his presence felt defensively in the first half and while joining the offensive rush in the second half.
“We’re obviously disappointed,” the coach admitted. “We had a pretty good game plan going in and we had a couple of opportunities.”
The coach said he knew his team would concede possession to the West Campus squad but felt they could mount a good counter attack.
Silva said all those that took the field played hard and succeeded in frustrating the Warriors early on. Not used to being shut down offensively, the West Campus squad had opened up the playoffs by defeating eighth seed Orestimba 9-0 and then topped number four seed Linden in a 7-0 final. Their 16 goals in the first two rounds prompted some re-tooling of the Escalon defensive scheme and the game plan worked well, keeping them off the board into the second half.
“They started off dominating possession,” Silva noted, but added that their inability to score early did seem to bother the Warriors. “We weren’t losing 8-0 like the other teams had.”
Escalon reached the finals with a 4-1 opening round win over number six seed Delhi and then took down number two seed Highlands in a 4-3 decision. The Cougars went into the playoffs as the third seed in D-V.
The game itself, played on the turf at Elk Grove High School, escaped the rainfall that had battered the area earlier in the day. But it was not without controversy, with three yellow cards assessed to the Cougars and some vocal complaints from the Escalon fans about the officiating. No fewer than what appeared to be three hand balls by the Warriors were not called and the West Campus squad had just one yellow card assessed, coming in the waning minutes of the contest.
Escalon nearly got on the board on a Daniel Tapia header off a Jonathan Valeriano corner kick that got blocked at the last second and it was Valeriano again who gave the Cougars some hope when he took a kick from past midfield to open the second half and got it up in the wind, looking to take advantage of how far the West Campus goalie ventured out of the box. The ball hit off the crossbar but bounced off and away.
“We were really comfortable defending and being patient,” Silva said of opening the second half. “We had the wind at our back, their goalie was so far out; we were hoping we could make him pay.”
Valeriano, a junior, said that was part of the game plan, once they saw how far out the goalie played, they worked to get it in behind him.
“From that far out, I knew I could reach it,” Valeriano said of sending the kick from just past midfield to start the second half.
He also said the strong first half, keeping West Campus off the scoreboard, set the Cougars up for a good run.
“I feel like most of us were really prepared,” he said of battling the top-ranked team.
Escalon goalie Oscar Gonzalez had 10 saves in a very busy night on the pitch. West Campus scored on a shot that appeared to deflect off a player and change direction a little less than 10 minutes into the second half for a 1-0 lead and they put the second goal in off a flurry in front of the net, adding the insurance marker with 15 minutes to play.
Though as a team, the Cougars were disappointed in the 2-0 loss and had to watch the Warriors celebrate at their expense for the second year in a row, Silva said they still have plenty to be proud of for this season. He also thanked the crowd that turned out to support the team, making the trek to Elk Grove to cheer on the Cougars.
“We’re not satisfied. It’s disappointing how it ended but we were competitive,” Silva said. “I’m proud of the guys for getting to the finals …. It’s not a given that will happen and I’m proud they came together.”