As kickoff approached for Tuesday’s CIF-SS quarterfinal, smoke billowed from a fire burning nearby. Dust devils twirled, and tumbleweeds tumbled. The electricity was out. And it was just starting to get inhospitable for El Cajon Christian.
Inside the stadium, the undefeated Desert Mirage Rams (24-0) stood waiting, with their hair dyed red and their reputation for flair and technical proficiency. And the Rams wasted no time in utilizing all of the above to produce a dominant 3-0 victory in their CIF-SS boys’ regional soccer (Division 5) quarterfinal.
“And their bus took them to Rancho Mirage (High School) first,” said Rams’ head coach Peter Zamora. “We had to hold the kickoff so they could get in their 30 minutes of warm-up. But I just told my team, hey, be ready to play. And they were hitting on all cylinders.”
It’s likely The Patriots (16-7-3) hadn’t quite acclimated from their lengthy excursion from the San Diego area before they were down in the match, 1-0.
The very first time Desert Mirage sophomore forward Alejandro Pimentel got behind Christian’s back line, he centered a pass that was swept from the boot of a Desert Mirage finisher before he could challenge the keeper from point blank range. However, the clearance fell to sophomore forward Jesus Gutierrez, who put the ball right back in the danger zone. Pimentel was waiting there, unmarked, to finish high and hard for a 1-0 lead in the fifth minute.
The Rams continued to boss the ball and create the next two half-chances, with senior midfielder Luis Hernandez attempting a long shot in the 17th minute that forced Christian’s freshman keeper Drew Waymire to make a save. Seconds later, Desert Mirage senior forward Fred Zaragoza got down the left flank and put in a deadly cross that none of his onrushing teammates could touch over the goal line.
Zaragoza, senior forward Ramses Mora, Pimentel, and even senior defender Javier Ruiz were all getting joy down the left, and Desert Mirage kept the ball on that side of the pitch throughout the half. Meanwhile, Christian fell into a habit of watching the Rams’ play, and began to tire from constantly chasing the ball. In the 20th minute, senior midfielder Cristian Galarza took a poor clearance and fired just over the bar, and Pimentel chipped through to Mora seconds later, and Mora’s shot forced a stretching reaction save from Waymire.
The Rams finally doubled their lead four minutes later when Hernandez dispossessed a Christian defender in his own half and drove into the heart of the Patriot back four. He was taken off the ball in the penalty area, but the half-hearted clearance put the ball on the boot of senior fullback Fidencio Rodriguez 12 yards out from the right post. Rodriguez drove his shot across the face of the goal and into the lower left corner for a 2-0 lead.
The chances kept on coming as the speedy Rams consistently breached the Patriots’ back four. Junior midfielder Dante Delgado’s diagonal run was picked out by Pimentel, and Waymire had to come up with a big stop by diving to his right in the 26th minute. Zaragoza got behind the Christian back line and just missed with a shot that sailed across the face of the goal just two minutes later.
Seconds after that opportunity, Pimentel threw a dangerous ball across the face of the goal where Waymire was forced to stop Zaragoza from point-blank range. And just five minutes after that, freshman Christian defender Austin Miller bravely threw himself into Zaragoza’s knees to push the ball away just before Zaragoza could crank another shot away from near the penalty spot.
The trend continued in the second half, and the immediate pressure paid dividends in the form of a third goal. Hernandez scored with a spectacular strike from the top of the penalty area in the 57th minute, inspired by Pimentel-generated chaos in the Patriot penalty area. Pimentel slid in a dangerous cross from the right side, and the ball eventually fell to Hernandez at the top of the penalty area. His high-velocity shot hit the underside of the crossbar and continued into the back of the net, effectively sealing the victory with over 20 minutes to play.
Desert Mirage 3, El Cajon Christian 0
(Alejandro Pimentel 5, Fidencio Rodriguez 24, Luis Hernandez 57)
The player: Alejandro Pimentel, senior forward: Whether on the left flank or the right, Pimentel was unstoppable all afternoon. His technical abilities allowed him to dance past Christian defenders at will, and his ability to create his own space led to two of the Rams’ three goals, including the first which he scored himself. His threatening services could have led to as many as five more Rams’ goals as he continuously put useful crosses into the Patriots’ penalty area with impunity.
The support: Juan Ceja, left fullback: Always calm, cool and composed, whatever the situation presented, Ceja did the right thing time in and time out. He rarely came forward on his own to join the attack, but was always willing — and able — to start the build-up from the back.
Notable: The undefeated Rams will host McFarland (21-3-3) Thursday at 4 p.m. in the CIF-SS Division V Regional Semifinals … Senior midfielder Juan Gutierrez suffered a head injury and was carted off in the 10th minute. He returned some 15 minutes later and played a majority of the remainder of the game … Desert Mirage goalkeeper Jesus Negrete made only three saves in the first half, none of which forced him into desperate action. In the second half, he only touched the ball twice, once via a back pass from a teammate, the other while collecting a weak header … Desert Mirage coach Peter Zamora was able to get several of his reserves on for significant time, including making a five-man substitution with 10 minutes to play.