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Gallegos takes over strong Phoenix boys

The coronavirus that hit last spring and the Almeda fire that burned down much of the city of Phoenix last September was a one-two gut punch that staggered the Phoenix High boys soccer team.

Between the varsity and junior varsity teams, 12 players were burned out of their homes.

“The emotional impact was pretty heavy even on the kids whose homes didn’t burn down,” said first-year head coach Chris Gallegos. “It’s been a struggle and much of the burden remains.”

But the load eased considerably in early February when state and school officials announced that high school sports could resume, albeit on an abbreviated basis, in March.

Coupled with the recent opening of a renovated Jack Woodward Stadium — the facility features a new artificial, all-weather surface and will be the home field of both soccer and football — the Pirates’ spirits are quickly rising.

“The school and the community stepped up and we’re grateful,” said Gallegos.

Gallegos takes over the boys program from Dennis Flenner, who led the Pirates to 292 victories and 15 conference championships in 25 years at the helm.

Gallegos seems like a perfect fit as the Pirates’ new mentor. Not only did he assist Flenner in the late 1990s, he also has worked in the Phoenix youth program, where he tutored many of the current varsity players.

He also was an assistant with the girls soccer program in 2019.

Gallegos’ work ethic went on display last fall. Although Phoenix’s school season was canceled due to the pandemic, Gallegos teamed with South Medford coach Claudio Villa and formed an impromptu league with other boys teams in the Rogue Valley.

The competition was especially therapeutic for the Pirates as they worked their way through the twin calamities.

“We made the most of a tough situation and it was fun for our kids to go up against the bigger schools,” said Gallegos. “We got in seven or eight games and no one had to pay anything.”

Gallegos knows he has some big shoes to fill in succeeding Flenner, but he welcomes the challenge. And why not? The talent pool remains as rich as coconut cream pie.

It starts with brothers Victor and Dan Martinez. The former, a junior, fuels the offense at forward. The latter, a senior, anchors the defense at center back.

There’s also a third Martinez, freshman midfielder Ethan, who, based on his gene pool and a fierce competitive drive that runs in the family, could emerge. He’s debuting on the JV team and may soon swing to varsity, Gallegos said.

Gallegos recalls Victor Martinez in the youth program as a “muscle-bound little kid who was stronger than anyone around him.”

The strength remains, and it’s been fortified with cat-like quickness, a vast skill set and an unyielding desire to keep improving, attributes that landed him on the OregonLive Class 4A, first-team all-state squad as a freshman and sophomore. As a freshman, he was the lone non-senior on the team.

“He loves the game as much as anyone I’ve met,” said Gallegos. “He’ll head to (U.S.) Cellular Field and play soccer with the other kids, and if they’re not available, he’ll go there and practice on his own. That’s something you just can’t coach.”

Dan Martinez is no less competitive.

“He’s fearless, he’s not afraid to mix it up,” said Gallegos of the older Martinez, who was first-team all-conference as a junior. “He’s the anchor of our defense, 100 percent.”

Other notable Pirates include 2019 honorable mention all-conference goalie Tucker Speaks, senior midfielder Yahir Valdovinos, junior wing Jorge Mehia and senior forward Caden Gallegos, the coach’s son.

Caden Gallegos, who came on strong the last half of the 2019 campaign, could be in for a big season after performing with Oregon United FC, a Portland club team, last fall and into the winter.

“He’s put in a lot of time,” coach Gallegos said. “We should have a nice one-two punch up front (with Victor Martinez and Caden Gallegos).

Hidden Valley, Henley, North Valley and Klamath Union could challenge the Pirates for Skyline superiority.

Phoenix opens its nine-game season March 3 at Klamath Union.

The idea of a brief postseason is being discussed with Oregon School Activities Association officials, Phoenix athletic director Dave Ehrhardt said, but with only a week set aside for such competition, it may mean scheduling a top team from another conference in a one-game playoff.

Girls

During the 2019 season, Phoenix had about 35 girls in uniform. Fifteen months, one pandemic and one devastating fire later, and the Pirates have roughly 15 players.

“For the girls who are still with us, soccer is what they look forward to,” said sixth-year coach Stephanie Vandenbusch. “That, and finally getting back in school (on Feb. 1). “Before, when we were practicing and not knowing if we’d have a season, you could see it on their faces that they didn’t know what the future held. Now they’re more goal-oriented.”

Senior Alex Hernandez, who earned honorable-mention all-conference accolades in 2019, will lead the Pirates from her midfielder position. A capable scorer using either foot, Hernandez found the net several times in 2019, including one goal from just past the center-field line that wowed onlookers.

“She bombed one in from way out there and she was like, ‘Did I just do that?’” said Vandenbusch. “She has really good ball control, great vision and a cannon foot from either side.”

Senior center forward Maddie Mayer is penciled in as the Pirates’ other scoring force but is equally capable as a passer.

“We call her our golden lefty,” said Vandenbusch of the left-footed Mayer. “If we can get her the ball on the left side, that’s her sweet spot on the field. She’s quick and knows how to get open.”

Four sophomores — defender Ruby Rector, midfielder Morgan James, forward/wing Sofi Rodriguez and forward/wing Katie Christiansen — will play significant roles for the Pirates, who posted a 4-8-2 record in 2019.

Two-time defending Skyline Conference champion and 2018 Class 4A state champion Hidden Valley looks to be the league’s top team again.

Chris Gallegos, Phoenix boys soccer coach