Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
TALENT — His coach calls him "the one."
A teammate calls him "the creator."
Eli Espana simply calls himself a guy trying to get the job done.
In a most humble approach, he's done that and more for the Phoenix boys soccer team this fall.
The senior midfielder's contributions have been key for the Skyline Conference champion Pirates (10-3-1), who have advanced to the state quarterfinals every year since 2009.
The man calling the shots during those runs has been head coach Dennis Flenner, who is always quick to deflect the credit to his personnel.
For the 17-year-old Espana, he only has appreciation. Espana is a franchise player and a game-changer, Flenner says.
In short, he's Phoenix's version of professional Diego Chara, Flenner adds.
"When you have a player like him, it changes the whole atmosphere of a program," he says. "Soccer is his life. He eats, breathes and sleeps it."
The five goals and eight assists that Espana owns give but a glimpse of the soccer magician's offerings, Flenner says. He elevated his play to a sky-high level when two of the program's biggest stars — senior forward Johnny Esqueda and senior midfielder Ezequiel Flores — went down with injuries. With just a few carefully selected words, he operates as a silent but deadly linchpin, Flenner says.
"The trick to all this is that if he were selfish, he would have high numbers," Flenner says. "But he's out there getting the ball to the open guy, and he may not even get the assist. He's that kind of guy. He can handle the ball around a lot of players comfortably and keep possession and move the ball in positive fashion."
Espana, a Washington native, scored the club's first goal of the season, knocked in the game-winning shootout goal against Henley, went off for two goals and an assist at Hidden Valley and, now, is working feverishly in practice in preparation for the squad's Class 4A first-round state home match against Philomath on Tuesday.
Espana and his teammates say they are hungry after losing to La Salle Prep in the state quarterfinals in 2012.
"It really just motivated us to play even harder and to do a better job," Espana says.
When the chips were down earlier this season because of the injuries, Espana was at his best, Flenner says.
The club was shaken after Esqueda (last year's league player of the year) suffered a meniscus strain and when Flores sprained an ankle soon after. Esqueda was out for three weeks but is nearing full health and Flores missed some time and is also healing up well, Flenner says.
Flenner didn't need to say a word to Espana as he considered his team's unfavorable situation.
"I didn't have to," Flenner recalls. "I gave him the captain's band and said, 'Go take care of this team.'"
Espana did just that, helping the Pirates rattle off a nine-match winning streak.
Two of the club's three losses came against 6A squads (North Medford and Grants Pass).
"We had to work twice as hard, but you've got to get the job done," Espana says of stepping up in the face of adversity.
Those results have only helped to extend a tradition of state appearances at Phoenix. The club lost to Molalla in the 2011 4A state final and fell in the quarterfinal rounds in 2010 and 2009.
"He's one of the most skilled players we've had in a long time," Flenner says of Espana. "I am really thankful to have him on the squad."
Espana, who was a second-team all-state choice in 2012, plays year-round on club teams. His family moved here from Washington to be closer to relatives when he was in the fifth grade.
Espana, who played on the junior varsity squad as a freshman and sophomore, is one of nine seniors on the team.
One of the juniors on the squad — defender Jorge Pinon — doesn't have to look far if ever he needs advice from the one he calls "the creator."
The two have lived next door in this town since they were in grade school.
"He brings the game to us," Pinon says. "I think he is the creator, the creator of the plays."
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email firstname.lastname@example.org