May 26—With a return trip to the Central Section Division III boys soccer final on the line, Highland looked to make short work of Independence in Tuesday’s semifinal matchup.
The Scots scored a pair of goals during a two-minute stretch midway through the first half, and had several chances for more the rest of the way.
Fortunately for Highland, its defense was up to the challenge. The Scots held Independence in check and held on for a 2-1 victory to earn another shot at a Central Section championship Thursday at top seeded Tulare-Mission Oak.
“Unlucky, plus nerves, plus teenage boys,” Highland coach Daniel Felix said with a laugh. “We had a lot of chances, but they still fought and we’re proud of them either way.”
The Scots (13-2), which held a 12-4 advantage in shots on goal, opened the scoring 14 minutes into the match when Elijah Schwartz blasted the ball into the left side of the net on a free kick from 30 yards out, beating Falcons goalie Vincent Camacho for a 1-0 lead.
Just two minutes later, Highland scored again off a free kick, this time on a nice crossing pass from Erik Garay that Christian Chase headed into the net with 24 minutes left in the first half.
Chase nearly scored again off a free kick four minutes later, but it was Independence that found the back of the net next on its first shot on goal — another free kick.
Anthony Orozco connected from straight away from about 25 yards out, beating Scots goalie Matthias Williams to trim the lead to 2-1 with 16 minutes left in the first half.
“Overall, our boys came ready to play,” said Falcons coach Jon Mendoza, whose team split the games against Highland in the regular season. “It’s one of those games, when you see a team like Highland for the third time, you know your opponent, you know what they’re going to do. You can blame different variants, the field’s not the best, you can say the heat … you can blame anything. But at the end of the day, Highland came and showed up, and represented themselves well.
“We had some trouble putting it in the goal, but at the end of the day, this was a team that we put together at the last minute. We had two weeks to put together a team. It was the season that wasn’t supposed to happen, but at the end of the day, these boys showed up, they were hungry and they were training and practicing three or four days a week, sometimes at 6 a.m. They put it all out and I’m proud of them.”
Leading 2-1 at the half, Highland continued to pressure Independence and nearly padded its lead when Gabriel Vega’s free kick from 25 yards out hit the crossbar just six minutes after halftime.
Independence (9-3-3), which was playing in its second boys soccer semifinal in school history and the first since the 2016-17 season, had at least three chances to score in the final 10 minutes, but Williams played each ball perfectly, picking off cross passes and making key stops.
The Falcons had its best chance with five minutes left when Benjamin Jimenez stole the ball deep and broke free for a moment, launching a shot toward the net. Williams made the deflection, and the ball wasn’t cleared initially. But Independence was not in position to capitalize.
“Overall, it was tough, but this is where we wanted to be,” said Felix, whose team lost to Foothill in the D-III final last year. “We were here last year and I think that actually helped us. It means a lot to be here again.
“We didn’t know if we were going to play at all, and for those seniors it means a lot because they train all year long just for a chance like this. So it means alot to be here again and to have a chance to win Valley again.”