After Danny Baca buried the ball in the back of net, celebrated with his teammates on the sideline and then walked back onto the field, the thought he hoped was buried deep within him suddenly surfaced.
In last year’s Division I boys state championship soccer game, Gilbert led Chandler Hamilton by one goal with nine minutes left. But Hamilton scored two goals in the last nine minutes, plunging Gilbert to a loss that was so devastating, coach Jeff Perry never has watched a replay of the game.
“I saw it once live and in person,” he said. “That was good enough for me.”
And now here was Gilbert again, up 1-0 on Tolleson in the 6A Conference state championship game Saturday, courtesy of a Baca goal with 6 minutes, 22 seconds remaining. Baca didn’t want to think about last year’s heartbreak but he couldn’t help himself.
“A little bit,” he admitted.
But there would be no comeback this year. This year, after Gilbert hung on for the 1-0 win and state title, the tears that spilled were happy ones, the embraces shared joyous rather than consoling.
“Words can’t even describe,” Baca said. “Unbelievable. I feel so relieved.”
When Gilbert started training camp, Perry wasn’t sure if his team truly was over the loss to Hamilton. To work that hard and get that far, to be nine minutes away from the title and then see it swept away, that kind of pain doesn’t easily go away.
“It was so disheartening, just the way it went down,” Perry said.
Perry decided it was best not to talk about the loss, to focus on today and tomorrow rather than yesterday. But in the privacy of the coach’s office, away from his players, he was anxious.
“Would they rebound?” he said. “Would they have the fortitude to come back?”
Only when the state tournament started did the Hamilton game become part of the daily conversation.
“We started talking about, ‘Hey, we were so close a year ago,’ ” Perry said. “It was motivation.”
Gilbert had the edge early Saturday. Then, disaster: Junior defender Ethan Sotak was given a red card with 8:50 left in the first half after knocking down Tolleson forward Armando Valdez from behind on a potential breakaway.
As an understandably emotional Sotak raged on the sideline, scattering a cup filled with water and repeatedly punching a tent set up to give the players some shade, Gilbert was faced with a sobering thought: It would have to play the last six minutes of the half, the entire second half and possibly overtime with 10 players – against a Tolleson team that had not lost all season.
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Still, Gilbert had a chance to take an early second-half lead when Robby Baca, Danny’s twin brother, was knocked down inside the goal box. Stunningly, Danny Baca’s penalty kick was stopped by Tolleson keeper Alan Cazares, the first time all year Baca had missed a PK.
“I felt like I had to redeem myself,” Danny Baca said.
Redemption would have to wait. Tolleson dominated the next 20 minutes with scoring chance after scoring chance. A kick from 35 yards out hit the crossbar. Two breakaways went just wide of the net. And when Tolleson did get the ball on goal, Gilbert keeper Noah Rivera came up with the save.
“Noah has been fantastic all year,” Perry said. “I don’t even know what to say. He’s been that good.”
Tolleson’s missed opportunities gave Danny Baca another chance. He had promised his teammates after the missed penalty kick that he would score his 36th goal of the season “to win it for us.”
A long pass from defenseman Michael Johansson led him perfectly. Baca, just ahead of Tolleson’s defense, took the ball on a bounce and rifled a shot past Cazares and into the goal.
Six minutes and 22 seconds later, the loss to Hamilton was finally buried for good.