Highlanders strike early, even up series with Sonora
by Nathan Percy
La Habra Journal
After a loss to Troy in which it felt it had the edge, the La Habra boys’ soccer team came into Tuesday afternoon’s home matchup against rival Sonora with the mentality of a team that was coming in off a win.
Coupling that fire with a lackluster start for the Raiders, the Highlanders capitalized, scoring two goals within the first 20 minutes and hanging on for a 2-1 win, which knocked the Raiders out of any possibility of finishing better than fourth place.
“It’s really hard, you hope that your team is going to be ready for it,” said Cory Witt, Sonora head coach. “For 25 minutes, they just didn’t have any kind of enthusiasm, we were lackluster, slow and our decision-making was really pedestrian. When you spot a team two goals, it’s really hard to come back, but I really thought we could.”
Going into the matchup, Sonora sat just one point back of third-place Sunny Hills, while La Habra sat three points back in fifth place.
With Sunny Hills’ 2-1 win over Troy, both teams now sit three points back with one game remaining.
La Habra continued its knack of scoring on corner kicks, when Kolby McInally put the Highlanders on the board with a header off a corner kick by Israel Alvarez.
Later in the half, midfielder Charlie Aleman beat a defender on the left side and put in a cross for Austin Nazer, who finished with a score.
The Raiders responded with a goal less than a minute before halftime.
“We told our guys that they may be thinking because they scored at the end of the first half, that they could come out and score quickly in the second half, but we couldn’t allow that,” said Earvin Aleman, La Habra co-coach. “To us, this was a new game and throughout the game I felt the guys wanted it. They deserved to win.”
Throughout the matchup, Sonora wanted to utilize its main weapon, forward Eli Rico-Torres, who burned La Habra with four goals in the teams’ first matchup.
The second time through, La Habra prevented Rico-Torres from getting much breathing room in the offensive third by double-teaming him when the ball came his way.
Defensively, the Highlanders focused their back line on keeping constant pressure on Raiders’ forwards.
“The biggest difference was that we were tight on them,” Aleman said. “We did not allow [Rico-Torres] to receive the ball and turn on us like he did the last game.”
Sonora made an adjustment late in the first half and scored just before halftime on a pretty cross from Steve Vizarraga, who pushed the ball just past a defender and into the waiting right foot of fellow midfielder Jose Murillo.
Despite multiple chances on both sides, neither team could find the back of the net in the second half.
“We get in these tight spaces and it forces you to change the game plan,” Witt said. “[Eli] needed to play an active role as a decoy and that’s what he did for our first goal. They were double teaming our forwards the entire game, so we wanted to get the midfielders going, but we just couldn’t connect passes well in the second half.”
McInally missed wide right off a long throw-in from Chris Valencia in the 45th minute, while Sonora’s Andy Araiza had a chance on a header from a free kick, but it trickled wide to the left.
With time winding down, the Raiders picked up the pace and earned multiple free kicks and corner kick opportunities in the final five minutes.
Sonora’s best opportunity came in the 79th minute off a corner kick, but Rico-Torres header went wide of the goal.
“We knew in the second half that they were going to try to send the ball in every time, so I had my two center backs just drop back completely,” Aleman said. “Israel [Alvarez] and Ray [Flores] stepped up big once again in the midfield by winning second balls.”
Both teams close out the regular season on Thursday afternoon and both could be hoping for any possibility of an at-large berth into the CIF-SS Division 2 playoffs.
Sonora will try to avenge an earlier loss to Sunny Hills when it hosts the Lancers, Thursday afternoon.
“Our season’s pretty much over, they’ve clinched the third spot,” Witt said of Sunny Hills. “To send a team into the playoffs with a loss, that’s always kind of fun, but that’s unfortunate for us. That’s a tough loss.”
La Habra, which keeps the Bronze Boot by virtue of earning the season split, will try for a sweep against Buena Park on the road, Thursday afternoon.
“We don’t have a chance at third place, but there’s still a chance that a fourth place could qualify, so I want these guys to play as if they’re hanging on to first place,” Aleman said. “I felt like we did that today.”