Ten yards separated Aaron Martinez and the ball that he would soon catch to ignite a big second half for La Quinta.
The Blackhawks’ goalkeeper took his place in the center of the net, bounced around for the oncoming penalty kick and in one smooth motion extended his body laterally, stopping the ball with a diving save in a scoreless game.
The stop not only kept Cathedral City scoreless, but also swung the momentum of the game in La Quinta’s favor. The Blackhawks went on to score three goals in the final 25 minutes to defeat the Lions 3-0 at home.
“Aaron coming up with that save, that kind of lit a fire under these guys after that,” La Quinta head coach Gary Nadler said. “That was a big momentum changer.”
With the win, La Quinta is now in sole possession of first place in the Desert Valley League, breaking a tie atop the standings. Cathedral City, now 2-2 in the DVL, falls into a two-way tie for fourth in the league with Coachella Valley, which lost at Palm Springs Tuesday evening.
The Blackhawks (10-1-4, 4-1 DVL) have now held three consecutive opponents scoreless. The last time they were scored on was Dec. 23, in a 2-2 tie with Rancho Verde.
For a moment, it appeared as if the Lions would break that streak. With the match scoreless in a back-and-forth first half, junior sweeper Osmar Martinez was given a penalty shot in the second after colliding with two La Quinta players. He could have gone either way with the ball. He had a 50/50 shot.
After he set the ball, he took 10 steps back, charged at the ball and fired it off to his left. Aaron Martinez secured the ball, and La Quinta never looked back.
Four minutes later, sophomore defender Daniel Alexander found himself in a similar situation — with a penalty shot. He opted to go right with his shot, which sailed passed the outstretched arms of Lions goalie Andres Islas, who pounded his hands on the ground afterward.
That proved to be the game-winner.
“I think their momentum dropped big-time after that,” Alexander said. “We really picked it up after that.”
Cathedral City was forced to play without two of its best offensive players and captains for much of the game. Midfielder Luis Castellanos sat after receiving two yellow cards Friday at Desert Hot Springs. Striker Kaessen Nolan also sat for much of the match after leaving with a leg injury.
Nolan did return, but the damage had already been done. With the Lions playing on their heels, senior forward Jason Ocampo used his speed to chase down a long ball and score in the open field against Islas.
Moments later, sophomore midfielder Adam Lopez added another for good measure, bringing the crowd to its feet.
It was just the second time all season Cathedral City has allowed more than a goal in a game, going back to why the save by Aaron Martinez was so critical. As Nadler said later, “If they had gone up 1-0, that may have been hard to come back from the way they play defense.”
The two teams face each other again on Feb. 6 in a meeting that could be even more meaningful than this one.
Still, to gain separation in the league standings going into arguably the most critical stretch of the season greatly benefits La Quinta.
La Quinta’s next game will be against second-place Palm Desert on Tuesday.
“This was very important for us,” Ocampo said. “It puts pressure on us in a way, but it takes pressure off us being in first place. But we have another big game coming up against Palm Desert.”
Cathedral City returns home at 5 p.m. on Thursday to host Indio. The Rajahs are 1-3 in league play.