His coaches and teammates call him “Messi,” a nod to the Argentine superstar.
But chances are even the great Lionel himself would have stood to applaud Luis Gastelum’s 35-yard free kick that gave the Rattlers a 1-0 win over Banning on Wednesday in their CIF-SS Division 6 playoff game.
With seven minutes gone in the second half and a fiercely competitive game tied 0-0, Gastelum hit a laser beam of a dead ball that beat Banning goalkeeper Peter Tzintzun, crashed against the underside of the crossbar and bounced down and across the goal line before spinning out. The ball was subsequently bundled into the back of the net in a scramble that ensued, but officials confirmed after the match that it was Gastelum’s strike that accounted for the only goal.
“That’s the best one I’ve hit all season,” said Gastelum, who sent the nearly 200 Rancho Mirage supporters into joyous celebration. “And it was the most important.”
Rancho Mirage (11-8-1) now hosts top-seed South Pasadena on Friday in the quarterfinals.
The match was fought tooth-and-nail for the entire 80-plus minutes. The teams went to halftime tied 0-0, but it wasn’t from lack of effort, energy expended or shots taken. Both teams played at such a frenzied pace for the first five minutes, it appeared both had to play through fatigue for the following 10 as a result of the spent energy.
The Rattlers appeared to be the first to recuperate, particularly junior forward Miguel Escobar, who fired close with two shots within two minutes of one another midway through the half. Both sent Tzintzun scrambling to ensure each sailed over the crossbar.
Both teams’ willingness to commit to the attack often left them vulnerable at the back, and both had several chances or near-chances on the counter. Rancho Mirage sophomore forward Nathan Ocampo was a constant threat going forward, and Banning senior forward Omar Banda required the attention of two Rattler center backs at all times to keep him in check when Banning played the long ball.
After Gastelum’s goal, rather than withdraw to their half of the pitch, the Rattlers continued to push for a decisive second. With 19 minutes gone in the half, Ocampo had a golden opportunity when fought by three defenders and snapped off a shot that Tzintzun again turned away. Tzintzun repeated the feat just three minutes later, palming away Ocampo’s point-blank shot to force a corner.
Despite only being outshot 18-16, Banning’s best chance ultimately came in the 68th minute, when junior midfielder Jorge Oceguera hit a curling 25-yard shot that forced Rancho Mirage’s junior goalkeeper Josue Velasquez to push it over the bar.
“It was a tight game. It was a tough game. But we deserved it,” said Rancho Mirage coach Hugo Rojas. “We played hard defensively, we had plenty of shots, and we had the most clear opportunities. I think it was justice.”
Man of the match
Luis Gastelum: The Rancho Mirage captain scored the game’s only goal with a cracker of a free kick, and also controlled the ball and play in the middle of the pitch. He left the match injured after a clash of boots with 10 minutes left, but came back five minutes later, nearly scoring with another long-distance free kick in injury time that was punched away by Banning goalkeeper Peter Tzintzun.
Rancho Mirage defenders Rodolfo Barcenas (freshman), Christian Perezchica (junior), and midfielder Andrew Mercado (junior): The trio was primarily responsible for the Rattlers maintaining a clean sheet, with each man — sometimes two of the three — shadowing Banning danger man Omar Banda. On a number of occasions, the Bronchos were buzzing around the Rancho Mirage penalty area, but were nearly always stifled before they could deliver a decisive pass or shot.
Rancho Mirage midfielder Andrew Mercado took his man-to-man marking chores so seriously, he even followed Banning forward Omar Banda to the Banning bench during an injury stoppage late in the first half, and watched while Banda took in liquid refreshment….Of Rancho Mirage’s 18 shots, sophomore forward Nathan Ocampo was responsible for six.