South Tahoe boys soccer meets Sparks with state berth on the line
I-A NORTHERN REGION SEMIFINALS
(3) South Tahoe (10-5-2) vs. (2) Sparks (20-2-2)
at Riverview Sports Park, Truckee
Friday, 1 p.m.
South Tahoe boys soccer players performed the annual ritual of dying of their hair after finishing the regular season in a playoff spot — now its do-or-die for the Vikings. South Tahoe faces Sparks in the NIAA Div. I-A Northern Region semifinals Friday afternoon at Riverview Sports Park in Truckee, with a spot in the state playoffs on the line.
“We haven’t been to state in years — we really want it,” Vikings center back Chuy Vazquez said. “That’s all we’re thinking about — we dyed our hair and we’re ready.”
The Vikings and Railroaders tied a pair of physical games in the regular season — South Tahoe rallied for an improbable 2-2 tie at Viking Stadium on Sept. 30, and Sparks came back on their home field for a 1-1 draw four weeks later. The contrasting styles of each team — Sparks relies on the counterattack while South Tahoe plays possession-oriented and is anchored by a strong back line — has produced a pair of stalemates.
“We play two different styles of soccer — those two styles are going to clash,” Vikings head coach Ben Hannah said. “They’re contrasting enough and we just bump hard — so far it has been very even. The difference in the two games was very, very minimal.”
One team will leave the field Friday with a victory — and a place in the Div. I-A stae tournament. For South Tahoe, the key to advancing is playing its style of possession soccer throughout the match and not settling in defensively against the Railroaders’ attack led by forward Jesus Partida (27 goals).
“We have to keep the ball — their defenders just blast it up top and hope one of the forwards gets to it,” Vikings center back Jack Kixmiller said. “We just need to work as a team and mark No. 10 (Partida) — then we’ll be fine.”
Moving the ball from defense through the midfield up to attack has led to success for the Vikings this season.
When the ball gets up front, South Tahoe has a strong attack that features forward Michal Lis — the senior from Poland scored a team-leading 34 goals during the regular season.
“Actively making the transition in a controlled fashion instead of trying to just pump the ball forward,” Hannah said.
“They have a lot of size on us, so they win a lot of those 50-50 balls in the air — we need to be able to control the ball better on the ground.”
After a 3-3 start in league play, South Tahoe went 7-1-2 to close out the regular season. The Vikings’ lone loss came during that stretch came against league champion Truckee, and they have gone undefeated in five matches since then — all on the road.
“We’ve come leaps and bounds — we’re improving all the time,” Hannah said. “I think our record shows that we’re playing the best soccer that we have all year.”
South Tahoe began the season with a relatively inexperienced squad — 16 players graduated from last year’s team — and has consistently improved throughout the season. Vikings’ players view the team’s first meeting with Sparks as a match that turned around their campaign.
“When we played them the first time, the squad came together — we really stepped it up as a team,” Vikings wingback Diego Garcia said. “We just have to play how we played that first game — with possession and so much motivation.”
The Vikings haven’t made the state playoffs since 2010, when they won the Div. 3A state championship. In each of the past two seasons, South Tahoe has been eliminated by Sparks one win shy of state — including a 3-2 loss last year.
“It was unlucky for us — they got a PK and they took advantage of it. We had eight minutes left after they scored and we really couldn’t do too much,” Garcia said. “It serves so much motivation — this year we get to play them again in the same game and it’s practically a rematch.”
On Monday, the team continued the program tradition of dying its hair blond in advance of the postseason. The Vikings’ new hairstyles may not look serious on the pitch — but the ritual sets the tone for the second phase of the season.
“We did it and we all look like goofs — but we’re a team, we did it together and we have to make it worth it,” Vazquez said.
Third-seeded South Tahoe (10-5-2) plays second-seeded Sparks (20-2-2) Friday at 1 p.m. The winner of that match will meet the winner of the other semifinal between top-seeded Truckee (19-3-2) and fourth-seeded Fallon (11-7-3) on Saturday — the Greenwave tied Spring Creek in a replay match Tuesday to claim the last spot.
“We definitely want it — we have a combination of some players that have been around for all four years and a lot that are a little bit younger that are very hungry right now,” Hannah said. “They know what’s at stake — we’d love nothing more than to take that trip and represent the north.”
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