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Varsity Cougar Soccer Boys Play For Section Title
Thursday Night Finale
Cougar defender Kevin Alpizar, 18, slides in to take the ball away from his Natomas counterpart in second half action on Thursday. Escalon prevailed in a penalty kick shootout to advance to the Section championship game.Times Photos By Marg Jackson

A pair of wins, including a nail-biting, hard hitting contest that went to penalty kicks on Thursday, has propelled Escalon’s varsity soccer boys into the Sac-Joaquin Section finals. They will play for the Division V title on Thursday night at Elk Grove High School, facing off with top seeded West Campus in a game scheduled for 7:15 p.m.

Taking the Trans-Valley League championship, the Cougars entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed and hosted No. 7 Venture Academy in the opening round on Tuesday, Feb. 21.

“It was 1-1 at halftime,” said head coach Paul Silva. “We scored the first goal, Guillermo Alvarez took it up the wing, went all the way in and scored, about three minutes into the game.”

While that seemed to set the tone early, the Cougars were unable to sustain the pressure and did not score again in the half. Venture Academy tied the game midway through the first half.

Escalon regained the lead with an unassisted goal from Hector Ramirez about 25 minutes into the second half and held that advantage the rest of the way. Goalie Ismael Gonzalez had seven saves.

“It was a very physical and intense game, Venture Academy was really aggressive,” said Silva.

The style of play saw several Cougars having to leave the field with minor injuries, which definitely disrupted the flow of play, Silva added.

“It seemed like I was subbing constantly, but we gutted out the victory,” Silva said.

The team did lose Chris Gallo to an injury in that game, still on crutches during Thursday’s second round action. His status for the Section final was undetermined at press time.

In the Feb. 23 contest – a game that saw several yellow cards assessed and one red card for the visitors – Escalon prevailed with a 2-1 shootout victory over visiting No. 3 seed Natomas, earning the right to play for the Sac-Joaquin Section crown.

Because of the heavy rains during February, the playoff games were moved to the other side of the high school campus, adjacent to the Junior Varsity baseball diamond. Both the varsity and JV soccer fields were too wet and muddy for the contests.

“Six minutes in, Hector Rodriguez scored on a Denis Pineda assist,” Silva said of his team again taking an early lead on Thursday.

At the 33:00 mark, Natomas scored the equalizer and that’s how it stayed for the entire second half and on in to OT.

A 1-1 tie at the end of regulation on Thursday saw the teams go to the double overtime format, playing two 10-minute overtime periods. Neither team could score in the OT, so the game came down to a shootout, with five players on each side lining up to take shots against the opposing team’s goalie.

“It was an intense game, both teams have some really good players but neither could get that second goal,” Silva explained.

Escalon brought up a few players from the JV team for the playoffs and Silva said they performed extremely well, including Jonathon Yepez and Emiliano Ramirez, who were tasked with containing one of the top threats for Natomas.

“Ross Calderon (sophomore) also did a tremendous job in the middle of the defense, Daniel Galvan, our normal sweeper was unable to play, and Ross came in and did a great job. Ismael had nine saves in goal and he did a tremendous job as well,” Silva said.

In the heart-stopping shootout, Escalon converted on all five opportunities. Guillermo Alvarez notched the first goal against the Natomas keeper. Natomas then made their shot. Hector Rodriguez scored for Escalon, Natomas countered with a goal. Denis Pineda scored and then Cougar keeper Gonzalez made a kick out toe save of the next Natomas shot, deflecting it with his foot at the last second. That gave Escalon a 3-2 edge. Jonathan Valeriano made it 4-2, Natomas got the next one in to make it 4-3.

That brought it down to senior captain Juan Albor, facing off with the Natomas keeper with the game on the line.

Albor’s shot streaked past the goalie, making it 5-3 Escalon and sealing the victory and trip to the finals.

“I stared him down,” Albor said of lining up to take the shot and working to get inside the keeper’s head. “I made sure he was the one who was nervous, not me.”

The captain also said it was a feeling like no other when his shot went in.

“It was surreal, I felt like I had to win it for Chris (Gallo), he worked his butt off for us and he couldn’t play today,” Albor said. “We also wanted to win it for our coach and our fans, they have been so supportive.”

The Cougars will move on to play for the Section crown on Thursday, March 2 at Elk Grove High School. According to the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section website, game time is 7:15 p.m.

West Campus, the top seed in Division V, defeated No. 8 Calaveras 5-3 on Tuesday in the opening round and then topped No. 5 Foothill by a 6-0 decision on Thursday to reach the finals.

“The guys are super excited, we’ve had a tremendous year but it would be great to get one more win,” Silva said. “We’ll give it our best shot.”