Athletic directors at the Class 5A level have proven to be the most invested in controlling their own playoff destiny since a switch to the...
Phoenix found itself in dire straits in the first round of the Class 4A boys soccer state playoffs Tuesday, then Eli Espana came through in a big way.
Espana, a junior forward, scored two goals and had an assist as the Pirates erased a 2-0 deficit with 12 minutes remaining in the game to post a 4-2 victory over Newport at U.S. Cellular Community Park.
Phoenix (12-1-1), which lost in last year's state finals 1-0 to Molalla, will host Ontario in a quarterfinal match on Saturday.
"It's the biggest comeback in Phoenix soccer history as far as I can remember," said Phoenix coach Dennis Flenner, in his 18th year guiding the program. "In the playoffs, if you get two goals down you can just about put the nail in the coffin."
But Espana and his teammates would have none of that.
"Eli played the game of his life," said Flenner. "Eli generates a tremendous amount of offense and possession. He also gets the ball to people who are open."
Despite being dominated in the first 40 minutes, the Cubs held a 2-0 halftime lead because of two mistakes by Phoenix first-year goalkeeper Hector Rocha.
About midway through the opening half, Rocha was whistled for a foul on a ball played back to the box by a teammate that the junior goalie first kicked but then picked up with his hands.
Newport (7-5-3) was awarded an indirect kick from about 15 yards out that Marco Aguilar tapped to Diego Villanueva, who hit a low rolling shot that deflected off a Pirate defender and past Rocha into the left side of the goal.
Then four minutes later, junior Adrian Botello took a free kick from 28 yards that went through Rocha's hands to give the fourth-place team from the Oregon West Conference a 2-0 lead.
"I just think (Rocha) had a letdown in concentration because of the importance of the game," said Flenner. "I told him he had to forget about the first half. He was distraught."
Phoenix, which went undefeated in winning the Skyline Conference and is second in the OSAA power rankings, pressed hard in the second half but couldn't penetrate the Cubs stingy defense until Espana cut the Pirates' deficit to 2-1 with a header served in by Alex Vela with 12 minutes to go.
"I just saw it there and put it in the left corner," said Espana.
With 8:56 remaining, Espana got open with the ball inside 10 yards and beat Cub goalie Vicente Aparicio to square the score.
"Once I saw (Aparicio) come out, it was an easy chip in," said Espana. "It was very hard to get good looks against them. We just passed and passed until we got some openings."
With Newport reeling after squandering a two-goal lead, the Pirates got the eventual game-winner less than a minute later.
This time Espana was on the passing end — finding Jose Mendez unmarked in front of the Cubs' goal. Mendez, a junior defender, calmly headed the ball into the net.
"I called for it and it was a good cross," explained Mendez. "I saw the left side of the net open. I didn't have any pressure on me, so I just took my time."
Jose Alegria converted a penalty kick with six seconds remaining for the final margin of victory.
"We knew they were going to push numbers forward and attack in the second half," said Jacob Wood, Newport's second-year coach who got the Cubs in the state playoffs for only the second time in school history. "We played pretty solid defense. Once their first goal popped in, that ignited them. Then they had us on the ropes. You have to give them credit for finishing their chances in the second half."
The Pirates received inspired performances from captains John Esqueda and Jesus DeLaCruz.
Esqueda, a junior midfielder, helped the Phoenix control possession and the senior defender DeLaCruz was a stalwart shutting down any threats by the Cubs.
"For a while I thought this thing might be over," said Flenner, "but we never bowed our heads. We just kept going and going. We played with a lot of heart. You can't coach that."
Reach reporter Frank Silow at 541-776-4480 or firstname.lastname@example.org