The Escalon High School boys soccer team loaded onto the bus empty-handed on Thursday evening, but the wait for a Sac-Joaquin Section banner shouldn’t be long.
With a roster stocked with underclassmen, including dynamic sophomore Guillermo Alvarez (30 goals, 20 assists), the Cougars will be a favorite to repeat in the Trans-Valley League and return to the Division V championship.
Until then, the throne belongs to West Campus, which stunned Escalon with a 3-0 victory on Elk Grove High School’s slick turf surface.
“That was a quality team,” Cougars coach Paul Silva said. “Give them full credit. They have a lot of talent over there.”
The Warriors notched the eventual game winner in the 25th minute, struck again shortly after halftime and then buried the Cougars’ title hopes with a penalty kick.
Escalon was out of sorts on the artificial surface.
Silva said his team had grown accustomed to playing on natural grass and struggled to control the pace – and the ball – at Elk Grove High.
“We’ve only played on turf a few times – up in Calaveras and out in Mountain House,” Silva said. “It was definitely a faster track than we’re used to, and we weren’t able to connect on passes like we normally do. The ball just got away from us and it wrecked our flow.”
The loss snapped Escalon’s season-long 22-game unbeaten streak. The 20 wins were the most since 2007-08, Silva’s first season as coach.
The future is bright, though.
The Cougars will graduate 10 players, including Andrew Benitez (23 goals, 11 assists) and Chris Gallo (11 goals, 13 assists), but return 20 players. Silva fattened his playoff roster with freshmen, giving them a taste of the varsity game at the highest level.
The section final was Escalon’s first since 1995, the season of its only title. The Cougars beat Ripon Christian in the Division III final, 3-0.
“Our program is in a good place going forward,” Silva said. “The senior class provided a lot of leadership and that won’t be easy to replace.
“It’s disappointing, but I’m still so proud. They went farther than we’ve gone in a really long time. It was a special season, and I hope they’ll look back, once the pain goes away, and realize just how special it was.”
Orestimba 3, Riverbank 2 at Turlock High – Hugo Martinez rippled the back of the net with a shot near the penalty stripe in the 72nd minute in the Division VI title game, granting the top-seeded Warriors their first Sac-Joaquin Section championship.
Martinez’s game-winning goal began on the right sideline with an assist from Oscar Madrigal and showcased the junior’s individual talent. Martinez dribbled through the box and found a shooting window, delivering a blue banner in head coach Jose Gallardo’s first season on the sideline.
Martin Sanchez and Jose Martinez also scored for Orestimba, which finished 19-1-1 with a Southern League trophy.
“This is very special,” Gallardo said. “It’s a pretty good accomplishment for first-year coaches. We said we’d give it a shot, never knowing we’d go this far. It’s an awesome feeling being section champions.”
Gallardo didn’t see it right away, but by the fourth game – a 3-2 victory over Patterson, a perennial playoff team – he knew his club was capable of something special.
“As soon as we had our guys, we thought we might have something going on,” Gallardo said. “We went full speed after that.”
Riverbank wasn’t intimidated.
The seventh-seeded Bruins stepped onto the turf at Joe Debely Stadium with confidence after upsetting No. 2 Encina and No. 3 Delhi to reach the final.
“The moment we found out that we were the seven seed, we took on the idea of being road warriors. We wanted to get past Encina and we did that. After that, we knocked out (Delhi). It was like, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ We knew it was going to be tough, but we had the mentality that we could hang and do it.”
Javier Luna put the Warriors on notice in the second minute, rebounding his own cross with a blast past goalie Ignacio Nava (nine saves).
Victor Rosas also notched an unassisted goal for the Bruins, who finished third in the Trans-Valley League and wrapped their season 16-10-1. Rosas won the ball in the midfield and rifled a shot past the dive of Nava into the corner.
“I give that team a thumbs-up,” Gallardo said. “They held their ground. That’s one of the best teams we’ve played. We were on our heels.”
The two sides were engaged in a “nail-biter,” Gallardo said, when Martinez struck with about eight minutes left in regulation.
Like Gallardo, Riverbank coach Juan Harvey reached the section final in his first season. He said the learning curve was steep – the Bruins lost four straight games in December – and thanked his players for their patience, perseverance and trust.
The bar, he quipped, is set high.
“I appreciated them believing every step of the way, having my back and helping me through this first season,” Harvey said. “They came to work every single day, through the rain and the mud and all the practices. I couldn’t have asked for a better group.”
Bradshaw Christian 3, Hughson 1 at Elk Grove High – Jessie Lawrence scored on a breakaway in the 42nd minute, but the wide-eyed Huskies were no match for the top-seeded Pride in Division VI.
“The girls were so anxious today, so excited yet nervous,” Hughson coach Mark Morphy said. “The fact that we got this far wasn’t thought of at the beginning of the season. It was really spectacular to just be there.”
Bradshaw Christian led 2-0 at the half and wrapped up the program’s sixth Sac-Joaquin Section title in 10 seasons.
“We held our own,” Morphy said, “but Bradshaw Christian was truly a well-skilled team.”
Lawrence scored her fourth goal in two games with a 15-yard shot inside the right post. Morphy praised Lawrence (17 goals), leading scorer Morgan Ehlers (31 goals) and top defender Ashlee Coder for guiding a relatively inexperienced team to a section final.
The Huskies finish the season 14-8-2 and played some of their best soccer in the postseason. After finishing third in the Trans-Valley League, Hughson throttled Gustine and Summerville by a combined score of 12-3 to clinch the program’s first section final appearance since 2004.
Morphy never saw this coming.
“We had like five girls that didn’t play last year. Our keeper (Mallory Maloney) is a senior and this is her first year playing soccer,” he said. “When you come out for tryouts and you see all of this, you wonder if you’ll even be competitive.
“We had some skill players who helped develop these girls and they turned into a scrappy team that fought hard.”