HILLSBORO — When the Riverside Pirates fell in the state semifinals match to Catlin Gabel last season, the team vowed they’d make it back again. Buoyed by the kind of determination beyond the normal realm of high school athletes, this season’s installment of the Pirates (18-0) now find themselves one step beyond the game from last year that hung with them well into the soccer offseason.
The final hurdle for Riverside in an otherwise perfect season comes on Saturday at 1 p.m in the form of St. Mary’s (15-1). The top two ranked teams in the state will clash at Liberty High in Hillsboro.
Getting to this point against the Medford-based Crusades might not have happened without last year’s letdown, coach Carlos Velasco said. The returning players — led by goal-scoring seniors like Jovanny Llamas and Erik Ruiz — have developed a unique mentality over the last year with narrow sight fixed directly on this game.
“It was the drive in a way because a lot of the players that were on that team are still playing now,” Velasco said. “It was the drive for them to play even harder this year and do better.”
St. Mary’s offers a near equivalent to Riverside, a team that has dominated opponents all season. The Crusaders have lost just one game this season in a 2-1 setback to conference foe Creswell — a team Riverside beat 5-1 during its playoff run. Most other games have involved St. Mary’s putting games away long before the final whistle and the soccer team brings a nine-game winning streak into the final contest of the season.
Velasco has had to keep his players focused through blowout after blowout while looking forward to the state tournament and a higher tier of opponents. The task hasn’t been as hard as it sounds, he said, despite finishing many games up by enough goals that the offense only plays to clear the ball rather than keep scoring.
“At that point, what are you going to tell them, to put up 50 goals on the team when you’re already up by 10 or 20?” Velasco said. “You can’t keep yelling at them to push so we have to let it slide a little bit. But when we play a good team, we can’t tolerate any of that. And they understand that.”
The Crusaders come from a private school in southeast Oregon and are no stranger to November soccer. They fell to Catlin Gabel in last year’s championship in overtime — the match after the Eagles eliminated Riverside. St Mary’s also lost to the team the previous year in the semifinals.
The year before that, in 2008, was the last time Riverside saw the Crusaders on its schedule, meeting in the quarterfinals of the state tournament. The Pirates won that game 5-1 before falling the next week to Eastern Oregon League rival Umatilla.
Three years in high school sports might as well be a decade as most players from the last matchup between Riverside and St. Mary’s have left school. What remains, Velasco said, is the coaching staff and intensity they bring to their players on the pitch. The team is highly disciplined and only a seismic shift in the earth will knock the Crusaders out of their game plan.
But Riverside also plays solid soccer, well enough to run the table to this point with an 18-0 record. This weekend’s matchup will be a titanic battle of crushing defenses and blazing offenses, Velasco said.
“We have to take advantage of this opportunity because it’s not every day that you’ll get it,” he said. “Going 18-0 won’t count for anything if we don’t go undefeated through the last game.”