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Phoenix boys fall short in title bid

HILLSBORO — They say sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

On Saturday, Molalla proved that it's best to be lucky and good.

The Indians were outshot 9-8, including 4-1 on goal, and did not have a corner kick, but took advantage of a failed clearance to score the only goal of the game and defeat Phoenix 1-0 in the Class 4A boys soccer final at Liberty High School.

A year after failing to qualify for the state tournament, Molalla (15-2-2) captured its first state title in its first championship game appearance. Phoenix (14-4-1), playing in a final for the first time since 1995, suffered its first loss since a 3-2 setback to Hidden Valley on Oct. 5 dropped the Pirates to 2-3-1.

Phoenix's long road back to the playoffs and through the playoffs included seven shutouts and five one-goal victories, but against Molalla it took only one crucial mistake to bring the Pirates back to earth.

The decisive play looked harmless when Molalla midfielder Sergio Maldonado sent a long pass ahead toward junior midfielder Adrian Palacios and two Phoenix defenders. Phoenix's Eddy Arevalo was in position to boot the ball clear but misjudged the bounce and missed the ball completely. Palacios, a 5-foot-2 speedburner, charged in, took the ball in the box and ripped with his left foot a low, hard shot inside the near post past Phoenix goalkeeper Roberto Cook in the 19th minute.

"I saw a guy behind me so I just took it right away," said Palacios. "I knew it was on frame but I didn't think it was going to go in because I put it really low on the ground. I just struck it as hard as I can."

Phoenix plays its home games on synthetic grass at U.S. Cellular Community Park, but Arevalo said the surface at Liberty High is much more worn down and the high bounce caught him off guard.

"It's a fast field, (the ball) bounces a lot and I just missed the ball," he said. "(Palacios) was right there, got under me. One lucky shot and it went in."

The Pirates weren't concerned despite the early deficit. After all, up until that point they had dominated possession of the ball and appeared well on their way to at least one goal and probably more.

"It was at a point where we thought that we could easily recover," Phoenix coach Dennis Flenner said. "But we didn't. And as the game went on we got a little more anxious and squandered a few more opportunities."

One of those occurred only four minutes later, when Molalla defender Leo Morales used his head to save a goal after keeper C.J. Stith whiffed on a slide tackle attempt, leaving the goal unguarded.

Not long after that Phoenix came oh-so-close again, but Alex Vela's open shot in the box sailed high.

That set up what figured to be an even more aggressive Phoenix attack in the second half, and the Pirates didn't disappoint, firing three shots in the first seven minutes. But two missed badly and the other was saved easily by Stith, who had four saves on the day.

Phoenix's aggressiveness nearly backfired midway through the second half when Molalla pushed ahead quickly to create a 2-on-1 advantage. Pedro Rojas delivered a good pass into the middle, but Abel Aquino couldn't control the ball long enough to fire a shot, and Phoenix's defense quickly converged.

The Pirates had two more opportunities to tie the game late, but both went nowhere. Luis Hernandez's corner kick in the 76th — the last of four Phoenix corners — was caught out of the air by Stith, and with 32 seconds to go Jose Flores' free kick from 34 yards away was deflected in the box and cleared.

"These guys, they kept going," said Molalla coach Jory Shene, whose team won on the strength of its 12th shutout. "As much as (Phoenix) was pushing, they were resilient in their attempts. Our defense was pushing down the wide channels and forced their midfielders to play more defensively instead of really getting into the attack."

Phoenix senior forward Omar Iboa, who put up two shots in mostly a distributor role, was named Phoenix's ODS Player of the Game. Senior midfielder Luis Hernandez had four shots, three on goal.

"We played our hardest," Hernandez said. "I'm proud of my team. I know it's my last year, but hopefully next year they can do better."

"The bigger the game, the bigger the pain," Flenner added. "We thought we were pretty well prepared for this. But I don't want to deny how well Molalla played. We knew that if we didn't strike first and do something that maybe they would and it would be tough."

Phoenix's Evan Johnson (6) heads the ball away from a Molalla midfielder during Saturday's Class 4A state title match. - Photo by Matthew Aimonetti