About two hours before the Palm Desert boys soccer team was scheduled to kickoff its first-ever home CIF Southern Section playoff game, coach Scott McKee got an unnerving text message.
One of his three seniors, forward Max Serrano, had come down with a fluke illness. He could hardly move, let alone sprint back-and-forth down the field as one of the Aztecs’ top scoring threats — one who scored the Desert Valley League title-clinching goal a week ago.
McKee wasn’t one for excuses after his team’s 2-0 loss to visiting Century in the first round of the CIF SS Division 2 playoffs, but in a game that stayed scoreless until the final 10 minutes, he admitted losing a third of his team’s senior leadership on a sophomore-heavy squad wasn’t ideal.
“It was just different today,” McKee said. “We just didn’t have enough to get it done today, and it didn’t take anything away from what we accomplished with the team’s first DVL title, but for whatever reason it wasn’t our best performance.”
Since a loss to rival La Quinta at home exactly a month before, the Aztecs hadn’t lost a single match and were in the middle of a five-game shutout streak. That type of domination that led to a landmark accomplishment also bred little familiarity with playing from behind, though, against a squad with 11 seniors.
The game’s first 20 minutes saw little action outside of the middle third, but the Aztecs began to control the pace and created some key scoring opportunities that didn’t connect.
In the 22nd minute, Leonardo Garcia-Guerra sent two line-drive shots right and high, and in the 35th minute, Christian Corrales sent the ball off the crossbar, creating a corner kick, but one the Aztecs couldn’t take advantage of. Had any of those opportunities or several others found the back of the net, McKee said he thinks his team would have come out with a different attitude in the second half.
Instead, as the nerves grew and the penalty whistles started to pile up, Centurion midfielder Brian Rojas deftly sailed a loose ball in the box over goalkeeper Aaron Gipson’s head for the decisive goal with just under 10 minutes to go.
“I was a little disappointed with the way the team responded,” McKee said. “We still had 10 minutes left and did create a couple of chances at the end.”
One of those came with under 2:30 left in regulation, two minutes after Century’s Jafet Lopez was given his second yellow card and ejected for wasting time on a goal kick. The Aztecs were a man up and had a corner opportunity when the Century goalkeeper questionably leveled an Aztec with a foot on the ball in the box.
The ensuing clear gave the Centurions a wide-open field with the Aztecs pressing, and eventually Erick Gomez netted his team’s second goal for the game’s dagger.
This season-ending loss will serve a purpose, McKee said. He doesn’t want his budding soccer stars to forget this feeling in a day, a month or even a year.
“When you get to CIF, you’ve got to be able to raise your level,” McKee said. “We’ll also look back in a few weeks on the season we had but also this feeling today. We need to learn from it and know we have to bring it for 80 minutes when we get back here.”