For the better part of Thursday’s game, it appeared as though La Quinta would drop from a tie for first place in the Desert Valley League to third or even fourth by the end of the night.
The Blackhawks trailed Palm Desert in the regular season finale, with just three points separating the top four teams in the league standings. A loss would have been catastrophic to La Quinta’s CIF title hopes.
But with four minutes remaining in the second overtime period, sophomore midfielder Adam Lopez broke free from the Aztecs’ defense and managed to gain separation before firing the ball past goalie Chris Hernandez from eight yards out. And just like that, the Blackhawks were on their way to a 2-1 victory.
“I saw the sweeper push forward, so I pushed forward with him,” Lopez said. “As soon as I looked up, the ball was there and I put it down with my chest and it spun right off my foot and went it.”
The fans packed into the La Quinta bleachers screeched, rising to their feet in celebration. Players on La Quinta bench jumped in unison. Teammates nearly tackled Lopez, rubbing his head and wrapping their arms around him in jubilation.
His goal would prove to be the one that saved the Blackhawks, earning them the overtime victory and a share of the DVL title with Coachella Valley, which beat Indio.
“I’ve always had confidence in this team,” La Quinta captain Jason Ocampo said. “We knew it was going to take a lot of hard work. So we just took hard work and dedication and we got it.”
With junior forward Jesus Avalos out, the Palm Desert defense clamped down on Ocampo. Still, he almost put La Quinta on the board early when he chased down a long ball in the first half, wrapped the ball around a defender and dished it off to an open teammate in front of the goal. Hernandez saved a would-be goal, his first of 12 stops on the night.
La Quinta (14-3-5, 8-3-1 DVL) won 4-1 at Palm Desert on Jan. 21. But this game had a lot more on the line, and the Aztecs rose to the occasion. Scoreless at halftime, senior forward Alex Samano broke the tie in the first minute of the second half when he drilled the ball past goalie Aaron Martinez from 20 yards out. The ball sailed by multiple defenders five feet in the air and beyond Martinez’s outstretched arms.
In the 73rd minute, La Quinta’s Johnny Lua slipped the ball past Hernandez to even the score and breathe new hope into the Blackhawks.
Palm Desert (12-9-3, 6-5-1) scored just before the first overtime expired, but a player was called offsides and the goal was nullified. It was downhill from there.
As the game raged on, and the crowd became further invested, cheering back and forth on opposite sides of the field, the Aztecs eventually dropped down to nine men. A player on both sides left on yellow cards, and then Palm Desert lost another to a red card.
La Quinta took advantage. Six minutes into the second overtime, Lopez got his shot and sunk Palm Desert.
“You’ve got to play your best every time in this league to win or anybody can beat you,” La Quinta coach Gary Nadler said. “This is a tough league and we saw just how tough tonight. We could have dropped to third or fourth. Instead, co-champs is great. It’s been a while.”