Desert Mirage had everything to lose during Saturday’s CIF-Southern California Region V boys’ championship match.
The 25-0 Rams had beaten their opponents, Shadow Hills, three times previously this season, including a 2-0 win in the CIF-SS Division 6 title game just eight days earlier.
But they also had a CIF regional championship to win, and that was motivation enough, as the Rams scraped out a hard-fought 4-2 victory over their De Anza League rivals in a match that doubled as a Coachella Valley derby.
The Rams (26-0) led 1-0 at halftime, and added three more goals in the second half to fend off Shadow Hills’ persistent challenge. The decisive goal came from the penalty spot in the 79th minute of play after the referee awarded the Rams a penalty, indicating a shirt was pulled in the penalty area during a free kick.
Rams senior midfielder Luis Hernandez stepped to the spot to clinch the championship in the 80th minute, and when Shadow Hills senior keeper Angel Villalobos dove to his right, Hernandez sent his low drive into the lower right corner, giving Desert Mirage a 4-2 lead with only stoppage time remaining.
“This whole experience has been like a movie, and this is just the ending of the movie,” said Desert Mirage coach Peter Zamora. “It couldn’t have ended any other way.”
With its first offensive thrust of the match, the Rams took a 1-0 lead with a swift counter-attack. Sophomore midfielder Alejandro Pimentel found himself right into the Shadow Hills back line on the run, and after luring the center back out of position, he flicked the ball to senior forward Fred Zaragoza, who was steaming through the heart of the defense and into the penalty area. Zaragoza collected Pimentel’s lay-off, and curled a right-footed shot into the lower right hand corner on the stroke of the five-minute mark.
Despite the two teams’ history, and falling behind in the first five minutes, Shadow Hills maintained a territorial and possession advantage through the first half. But a majority of the Knights’ attempts on goal came from medium and long distance. In the 23rd minute, Desert Mirage sophomore keeper Jesus Negrete was forced to make his toughest save of the half, a leaping one-handed effort that denied Knights senior forward Daniel Vasquez, who laced a shot from just outside the area.
Desert Mirage started off hot in the second half, with senior forward Ramses Mora getting through unmarked for a close-range shot in the first minute, only to have it turned away by Villalobos. But less than a minute later, sophomore forward Jesus Gutierrez scored when he took a shot on the volley from the top of the penalty area, and it beat Villalobos into the upper right hand corner to give Desert Mirage a 2-0 lead with less than two minutes played in the second half.
Shadow Hills (19-8-2) produced an answer less than five minutes later, when a cross from junior midfielder Isaac Vargas lifted a ball into the Rams’ penalty area that bounded off the heads of Shadow Hills senior defender Cesar Castaneda and Desert Mirage senior defender Armando Rivera as they were falling, and the ball deflected past the scrambling Negrete, cutting the Rams lead to 2-1.
Desert Mirage answered with what seemed to be the knockout punch in the 67th minute, when Zaragoza sent a screaming ball along the ground into the Knights’ six-yard box, and a clearing deflection fell right to Rams senior defender Javier Ruiz, who smashed it by Villalobos to give Desert Mirage a 3-1 lead.
The crowd of approximately 900 was still buzzing from Ruiz’s goal when the referee pointed to the penalty spot at the other end. Prior to the penalty kick, Zamora attempted to substitute senior keeper Manuel Perez for Negrete, but the referee denied the change after a Shadow Hills protest.
Negrete came back in, and Herrera slotted the penalty down the middle as Negrete dove to his left, and Shadow Hills was down 3-2 in the 71st minute, setting up the final frantic minutes and the decisive penalty in the final minute of regular time.
“We went all the way to (the) Division 6 (final) and then all the way to (the) state (finals), so it’s quite an accomplishment. The boys should be proud of themselves,” said Shadow Hills coach Derek Orkney. “Many of these guys are on the same club teams, and it was nice to see that after a couple of fouls, they were hugging, and then went right back to pushing.”
Man of the Match
Fred Zaragoza, senior forward, Desert Mirage: Zaragoza was his usual lively self, causing Shadow Hills defenders grief whether he was strafing the flanks, or charging down the middle of the park. He strode on to the Rams’ first goal in the fifth minute of play, and set up Desert Mirage’s third, and ultimately winning goal, by whipping in a low cross that created chaos in the Knights’ penalty area.
Jesus Negrete, sophomore keeper, Desert Mirage: Negrete conceded twice in the match, once from a deflection off falling, colliding players, and a second from the penalty spot. Otherwise, he was solid when challenged, fielding a host of long range shots designed to test his ability to not only save, but secure those efforts.
There were two flashpoints in the emotional match, but cooler heads prevailed after each encounter. However, the referee did issue eight yellow cards in the match, including one to Desert Mirage coach Peter Zamora, who was also booked in the semifinal Thursday…American-style clock stoppages meant the match actually stretched to 96 minutes and 25 seconds, with 5:38 added to the first half, and 10:47 added to the second half…Desert Mirage coach Peter Zamora, who had grown a healthy playoff beard during the Rams’ postseason run, said he was unsure if the beard would stay or go. “The jury is still out,” he said.