TAHOE CITY, Calif. - The Laker boys knew they'd have to bring their "A" game into Tuesday's home battle against the undefeated defending state champions.
They did, and Sparks still left with a 4-1 victory to remain unbeaten on the year, at 20-0.
"Yes, indeed, Sparks is a very solid and talented team. I think they are the best team in all the divisions, including Division I right now," said longtime North Tahoe head coach Beto Alcaraz, who knows a thing or two about talented teams, as his Lakers own six state championships.
The Laker girls, meanwhile, owners of five state titles, pounced on the Railroaders for three first-half goals and then held on for a 3-2 victory.
The Railroaders quickly discovered that their hosts were not about to roll over for them.
In a chilly contest from the start, the Lakers hustled all over the field, defending with tenacity and disrupting Sparks' skilled possession game while linking together passes of their own and threatening to score on several occasions.
"This is a team that will counter on you!" Sparks head coach Frank Avilla hollered at his players in the opening minutes.
But it was the Railroaders who countered on the Lakers in the fifth minute to record the first goal of the game, as Vicente Cervantes gathered a dish-off from Hector Hernandez and blasted a ball from 25 yards out past goalie Omar Vargas.
Sparks added to its lead in the 18th minute when Ruben Pacheco crossed a ball to Hernandez, and Hernandez beat a charging Vargas to the pass to double the score.
The Lakers never relented. Shortly after the second goal, senior Trevor Semmens nearly cut into the lead off a through ball from Danny Garcia, but his sliding hit sailed wide left of the goal.
"We were moving the ball well and passing well," Alcaraz said, complimenting his team for both its offensive and defensive play. "For the most part we were paying attention, marking the opponent. Once in a while we would lose the mark, but in general we played a heck of a game."
The Railroaders struck again with a fortunate free kick called just outside the 18-yard box, which Kevin Partida bent deftly around the North Tahoe wall and into the lower right corner of the goal for a 3-0 lead.
North Tahoe finally got on the board 22 minutes into the second half with a goal off the foot of Francisco Medina, adjusting the score to 3-1. But Sparks answered right back about a minute later when Hernandez scored off an assist from Pacheco.
"I hope we continue to play this way," Alcaraz said. "I truly believe our boys are convinced of what are they capable of. I'm very fortunate to be able to coach this very talented group of boys. They have come a long way compared to last year. I see a lot of improvement on all the players, technically, mentally and physically."
The Lakers, who fell to 0-5-1 in the Mount Rose League, played a crucial league game at Whittell on Thursday (which ended after deadline). The Lakers are scheduled to play a nonleague game at Douglas on Monday and play at Truckee on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 4 p.m.
The North Tahoe girls set the tone early with three first-half goals.
The first one came almost immediately, as senior Elizabeth Buhler knocked in a shot unassisted in the first minute of the game.
Bozhie Pokorny extended the lead to 2-0 in the 14th minute off an assist from Francesca English, and Emily Pieper pushed it to 3-0 with an impressive goal in the 25th minute.
After receiving a pass from Audrey Johnson, Pieper cut to the center of the field past two defenders and sent a rocket shot into the lower right corner of the goal from 20 yards out. "I was proud of it," Pieper said.
The Lakers' first half would have been nearly flawless, but in the final seconds before the midway point, the Railroaders' Andrea Gumina was awarded a penalty kick on a play contended aggressively by North Tahoe goalie Angela Wood. Gumina converted to cut the lead to 3-1.
"The girls played really well in the first half, maybe the best we've played all year," said North Tahoe head coach Jon Rockwood. "They showed hustle, desire and passion, and all our goals were earned by hard work. That was encouraging to see."
The coach was not quite as pleased with the second half, which remained scoreless until the final 10 minutes, when Mariela Avalos got past a North Tahoe defender and scored on a breakaway, narrowing the lead to 3-2.
"The second half, we still played well, but it would have been nice to see one or two more goals," Rockwood said. "We played average soccer, and there's no excuse not to play great soccer."
Added Pieper: "I thought we were connecting passes, and our touches were good today. I think we just need to work on finishing. But overall we played well."
The Lakers improved to 2-3-1 in Mount Rose League play and 5-7-1 overall. They play at Truckee on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 2 p.m.