La Quinta High School’s Carlos Ortega (19,white, left), Isaac Sanchez (4, white, center) and Daniel Alexander (15, white, right) celebrate on the field and hug each other as a Sunny Hills player walks off the field with his jersey pulled over his head following the Blackhawks’ 1-0 CIF semifinal playoff victory at home on Tuesday afternoon, March 3, 2015. La Quinta advances to the CIF title game, which will be held later this week.
Gary Nadler had been adjusting his offensive formation throughout the postseason. He tweaked it a bit again for La Quinta High School’s semifinal game Tuesday, figuring the Blackhawks were doomed if they fell behind because of how Sunny Hills liked to stack the back line of their defense.
The adjustments nearly backfired early, as the Lancers came close to striking first on multiple close shots and on one penalty kick in the first 20 minutes.
But each time, La Quinta goalkeeper Sebastian Ascencio rejected any thought of a Sunny Hills victory and La Quinta eventually scored the goal for a 1-0 victory that will send the school to its first CIF Southern Section championship game since 2007.
“It took us a while to get back here, but here we are,” said Nadler, the La Quinta head coach. “These guys keep showing up, every game.”
The goal that secured the win for the Blackhawks came in the 35th minute, just before halftime. Leading scorer Jesus Avalos managed to get behind the Sunny Hills back line, which drew goalkeeper Daniel Martinez out on the right side of the box. The ball took a bounce back toward the net and Martinez was unable to recover in a heap of players, as Avalos headed the ball into the back of the net.
With a lead in the second half, La Quinta didn’t simply play back on its heels. Nadler kept the team attacking, though they did milk the clock for much of the final 10 minutes, when Sunny Hills switched to panic mode and began playing with desperation. The Blackhawks sill managed eight shots in the second half, rotating in a host of reserves to keep starters fresh.
“The lead was big because then we knew they’d start pushing up,” Nadler said. “I’ll take my chances with (Avalos) and Adam (Lopez) and their speed and their ability to create opportunities.”
The Blackhawks (23-5-1) will play Santa Ana on either Friday or Saturday at a neutral site for the Division 2 title. The exact time and date will be announced Wednesday morning on the CIF-SS website.
It has been eight years since any soccer team at La Quinta has made an appearance in a title game. That boys’ squad — led by goalie Ty James and Cullen Wilson, Joe Fuentes and Ricky Hernandez on offense — ultimately lost, 2-1, to Desert Valley League rival Coachella Valley High, and have not been back since.
For three years, it was widely believed that the next La Quinta team to reach the final would be the girls’ squad, which made the semifinals each of the last three years. Their season ended Wednesday in a 1-0 overtime loss at La Serna.
“Now we’re representing La Quinta,” junior captain Alexis Vargas said. “But not only us, but the valley. It’s much bigger than us. We want to bring the title back to the valley.”
Nadler said La Quinta’s 3-1 loss to Palm Desert on Jan. 21 was a wake-up call. The squad has since answered, winning 10 in a row. Though winning CIF has been a goal all season, Avalos said it wasn’t until after La Quinta’s second round win over JW North that the players really began to believe that the goal could be more than a nice dream.
They are now one win away from making it a reality.
“I’ve been waiting for years for this,” Avalos said. “To get this win would be phenomenal.”
Player of the Game
Jesus Avalos: Yes, he scored the only goal of the game, but he also drew three or four defenders each time he touched the ball and allowed the Blackhawks to maintain possession for key stretches of the game.
Sebastian Ascencio: His save on a penalty kick kept La Quinta from falling behind early, and he finished with nine saves on the day. Nadler said he got a lot of help from the four guys in front of him, who have been a steady, consistent group on the back line.