Centennial pulls plug on Vikings’ unbeaten season
LAS VEGAS — Winning and losing state soccer matches sometimes boils down to a painstakingly simple difference: It isn’t always the better team, the one with more skill, ball control or team play that wins, it’s the team that puts the ball in the net.
The South Tahoe Vikings appeared to be that team for the first 15 minutes of play in the NIAA/U.S. Bank Boys’ 4A State Soccer Championship Friday against the Centennial Bulldogs at the eternal summer Betty Wilson Memorial Fields.
But in the end, the Bulldogs finished key scoring opportunities when the Vikings were plagued with misses to oust South Tahoe 2-0 in the semifinal round.
This is the second time in three years the Vikings have made state only to lose in the first round.
“I have to credit South Tahoe,” said Centennial head coach Rick Kazee. “They made us look like amateurs at the half.”
Kazee said South Tahoe plays different than most Vegas teams, with a short passing game that often goes through the middle. They also double teamed the Bulldogs’ midfielders, often forcing them to go long on the outside lanes.
“We sat back the first half. We were lucky,” Kazee said.
Within the first four minutes of play, the Vikings drove deep into the Centennial Bulldog’s territory for two corner kicks. The result of the first was a header by junior Alex Torres, which smacked off the crossbar. The result of the second kick went skidding out of the box courtesy of a tough Bulldog defense.
The Bulldogs, who finished their season as the undefeated top seed in the Southern Region’s Sunset Division and 15-2-1 overall — but without losing since September — came back in the seventh minute on a booming throw-in from near midfield. Eventually the ball landed in front of senior Tobias Szymanski, a tall, lineman-like midfielder, who put a powerful shot just wide of the net.
The Vikings resumed their controlled game, knocking the ball between midfielders and defenseman, then back to the midfield, always looking for an alley to move the ball forward.
In the eighth minute, junior midfielder Leon Abravanel took a free kick inside the Bulldogs’ box, but it was blocked — one of many blocked kicks for the day. Junior Enrique Avina got the rebound, and put another Viking attempt wide.
Within the next few minutes, Torres got another break, with a good look at the goal, but put it wide. Tyson Cunningham then took a crossing pass from the middle and just a few yards from the net, but his lefty directly at the Bulldog keeper didn’t have enough power to find the net.
The game was all South Tahoe the first 13 minutes. The Bulldog fans could hardly be heard among the throng of Viking fans who had traveled south to watch an impressive Tahoe team make a run at state.
“I think we played pretty well,” said Viking head coach Joe Winters. “We just didn’t have the luck I thought we’d have.”
Deep in the opponents’ territory, South Tahoe received its first setback. Enrique Avina, a creative and soccer-savvy forward, got tangled up with a defender in the Bulldogs’ corner. He went down at minute 14 and was taken out of the game. Medical results are still pending, but Don Borges, South Tahoe’s AD, said he has a severe shoulder injury.
The second setback came two minutes later.
On a fast break in South Tahoe territory, Szymanski obtained control in the middle, shuttled a quick pass out to No. 10, Rudy Estevez, a freshman forward, for the give and go. Szymanski’s speedy shot at close range passed Viking keeper Tobin Lindstrom to give the Bulldogs a 1-0 lead.
The Bulldogs then played aggressively, giving the Vikings three free kicks before Estevez received a yellow card in the 32nd minute.
Afterward, the Vikings’ game changed slightly as they became more anxious.
“We tried to get it all at once,” Winters said. “We kept trying to get the long ball in there E it just didn’t happen.”
Visibly frustrated, Torres received a yellow card in the 39th minute. Coach Winters gave him a breather before the half.
Centennial’s Bren Valles received his yellow card before the start of the second half for inappropriate language.
The Vikings continued to play strong, pushing the defense forward. Again, scoring opportunities came and went. Few shots, however, were on net.
Centennial, too, had fast break opportunities and a few strong shots on net, force Lindstrom to make some important saves.
In the end, the two teams were neck in neck with shots on goal.
In the game’s final seconds, Centennial’s Josh Starbird passed to defender Juan Gatti, who followed a fast break opportunity for the one-touch shot to score.
Time expired before the two teams had an opportunity to resume play.
The Vikings were devastated, having fielded an undefeated season where they had not scored fewer than one goal all year.
“We missed open goals, missed opportunities,” Abravanel said.
Some Vikings said they came into Friday’s game overconfident and chided themselves for not working harder in practice days before.
On the sidelines, parents said the loss was hard on the team.
“It’s hard going to state without losing a game,” Winters said.
It makes losing at state that much harder.
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