There was time early this season when the Desert Mirage boys’ soccer team was haunted by the successes of last year’s squad. That team won the Division VI SS-CIF championship, winning 24 of 26 games on the season.
Fifteen of those varsity players did not return to defend their title. Instead, the task was left to new faces, many of whom had never played on the varsity team.
But on Friday, this year’s team — the one that has only lost once since Dec. 22 — took its first step toward repeating as CIF champions by defeating Beaumont, 3-1, in the first round of the Division V playoffs.
The Rams (12-7-3) began the season with a target on their backs, the burden to live up to last year’s team evident as they won just one of their first eight games of the year.
“The pressure was consistent,” head coach Jorge Chavez said. “Even though some of them did not play at the varsity level [last year], they were expected to defend their title.”
As the season progressed, and winning eventually replaced the losing, Chavez realized that this year’s team might actually have more talent in certain areas than last year’s team. The Rams also have some experience that they didn’t last year, anchored by returnees Jimmie Villalobos, Cesar Figueroa and Rafael Leon.
Villalobos was the catalyst for much of the offense against the Cougars (12-9), scoring a goal and assisting on another as Desert Mirage dominated the ball.
The Rams took a 2-0 lead into the intermission, thanks in part to an opening goal by Fred Zaragoza, before Beaumont scored on a penalty kick early in the second half and made the match interesting for the more than 250 in attendance.
The remainder of the match kept the home crowd on edge as the Rams tried to put another goal in the back of the net to secure the win, while the Cougars attempted to even the score.
The two teams combined for eight shots on goal in the final 10 minutes.
Finally, in the 88th minute, Villalobos outran the Cougars defense and fired a pass back in front of the Beaumont goal where Brandon Ulloa scored on a bicycle kick goal to seal the victory.
The Rams outshot the Cougars, 15 to 6 for the game.
Desert Mirage moved from Division VI to Division V this year, based upon the size of the school and its past success.
Chavez said the transition gives them something to prove because, in this division, the Rams haven’t won a thing yet.
For Villalobos, it gives this year’s squad a chance to etch its own legacy.
“Every game we’re just playing our hearts out,” Villalobos said. “We’re not thinking about last year.”
Desert Mirage next plays Silverado at 5 p.m. on Wednesday at a location yet to be determined.
“We’re ready,” Chavez said. “This should be a good test for the kids, but we’ll be ready and focused.”