Irrigon's Barreras (right) scored twice in a win over Grant Union. (Photo by AJ Mazzolini)
East Oregonian

IRRIGON — Two months ago, no one on the Irrigon soccer team expected to be where they are now. The team comprised 10 players including both boys and girls — one fewer than a regulation soccer lineup — and there wasn’t even a coach in place.

Despite the early season adversity, the Irrigon Knights (7-3, 7-3 SD5) won for the fifth consecutive time Saturday, besting Grant Union 3-1 on two second-half goals by Fernando Barreras. The victory guaranteed the Knights a finish no worse than third in the Special District 5 standings. The placing comes with a ticket to the state’s 16-team postseason tournament, the Knights’ lofty preseason goal.

“After all the work that we’ve put in, qualifying for the state (tournament) is the prize,” said Jose Romero, the former junior varsity coach for Umatilla who stepped up less than a week before the season started to coach the Irrigon team.

Romero came on three or four days before the team’s opening match with Central Christian. The shorthanded Knights were pummelled in their first two contests and outscored 17-4. They played the contests with one less midfielder in hopes that defenders and forwards could alleviate the loss in the middle. Some help arrived over the next two weeks as a few players turned out late and others came back from academic suspensions.

“A lot of people didn’t believe in this team,” Romero said. “I talked to the kids and we said this is a tough start, but we started believing in our team together.”

Irrigon turned itself around, winning the next two contests to even its record on the year. Their only loss since the early season came at Riverside, the league’s top team.

The debacle that the season started with left many in the community — and even some of the players — without much expectations for the year. The fact that the season wasn’t cancelled entirely was a victory, said Maritriny Mejia, the team’s lone senior.

“Honestly no, I never thought we’d be here,” Maritriny said. “We love having the school believe in us now, which is a big change. And just give us a couple years and we’ll definitely be known.”

The Knights trailed in the first half against Grant Union (3-9, 3-7 SD5) on a goal from the Prospectors’ Omar Medina. But much like their season, the players refused to quit. Anthony Landeros scored an equalizing goal before halftime and then Barreras capitalized in the second frame. Barreras gave his team the lead in the 58th minute on a header and stretched the lead to 3-1 when he scored a minute later. His second goal came on a rebound after another shot deflected off the far post.

“We’ve been through it all and now we’re winning,” Barreras said.

The Knights will play at Umatilla on Tuesday where a win would cement them into second place in the conference standings. They finish up the season with Riverside which has not lost a game this season.

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