The Hilltop High School boys soccer team seemed destined for more last season. The Lancers carried an imposing 24-3-1 overall record into the Division II championship game against Mesa League rival Bonita Vista, perhaps an underachiever on the field at 18-6-1.
But the Barons, who lost twice to the Lancers during league play in 2010-11, put on a stellar defensive performance to hold Hilltop’s powerful offense in check while also tying up the ball in midfield and creating numerous scoring chances of their own.
The result was an overtime stalemate at 0-0, and a kicks-from-the-mark tie-breaker to determine a winner.
Bonita Vista won the KFM tie-breaker, 5-4, in six rounds to hoist the Division II championship plaque, though the game was officially counted as a 0-0 draw.
It was a magnificent match-up for the Metro Conference, and a shame that both teams couldn’t share the CIF title (as in football).
As it was, the Lancers finished the season ranked 16th in the nation and sixth in the state in the ESPN Rise poll. Overall, Hilltop made championship finals appearances in the Coronado, Grossmont and CIF tournaments.
With 14 returning players from last season’s Mesa League championship and Division II runner-up squad, including nine of 11 starters, it would appear the Lancers are back for more in 2011-12 — much more.
“This season, we have probably one of the strongest schedules in the county with match-ups against powerhouse programs such as Rancho Bernardo, Poway, Torrey Pines, Westview and Bonita Vista,” HHS coach John Salts said.
“We have a strong core on this team with a great connection between players. These boys really love the game and play with a passion and humility that you really don’t see that often in sports any more. They put team first and play with that mindset.”
It appears, in order to be the best, the order of the day will be to beat the best, including reversing two narrow setbacks to Poway in non-league play last season.
The Lancers kick off what should be a very promising 2011-12 campaign by competing in this weekend’s Coronado tournament, followed by a high profile non-league game at Torrey Pines on Dec. 8.
Hilltop will compete in the Grossmont tournament Dec. 10-19 as well as meeting Steele Canyon (Dec. 12) and Poway (Dec. 16) in a pair of non-league match-ups.
The Lancers kick off Mesa League play Jan. 18 at Eastlake.
Hilltop’s dynamic duo remains Jimmy Estrada and Angel Robles.
Salts noted that both have been playing as teammates since childhood and, in the coach’s words, “absolutely complement each other.”
“They literally can find each other on the field with their eyes closed,” Salts said. “That is how in-sync they are with each other.”
Estrada returns as the 2011 Division II Player of the Year.
Besides strong offensive playmakers, a key strength this season includes a veteran cohesive backline. The Lancers return their entire starting defense, including junior goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas.
Salts noted this defense was responsible for shutting out all opponents throughout five games of the Grossmont tournament, including the championship match. That Hilltop same unit also shut out all opponents throughout each round of the CIF playoffs.
Zendejas is one of seven Hilltop players in the San Diego Surf U.S. Olympic Development Academy Program. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, he is one of the most imposing goalkeepers in the county.
“With his ability level and agility, he takes away angles and open nets at the blink of an eye from opposing strikers,” Salts said.
Enrique Maldonado and Saul Carrillo must rate as two of the most dangerous outside backs in the section with their ability to mark opposing players on defense and their quick strike counter-attacks that led to a goodly percentage of the team’s goals last season.
So, will the defense rest in 2011-12? The Lancers would like to think so.
Hilltop kicked off the new season with a big bang Tuesday by defeating defending San Diego Section Division I champion Rancho Bernardo 6-2.
The Broncos came out strong and controlled play for the first five minutes of the match, then the Lancers woke up and took over. Rigo Maciels started off the scoring at the 8:30 mark by converting a rebound on an outside shot by Abdiel Flores. Five minutes later Omar Hernandez made it 2-0 Hilltop with a strong shot from about 30 yards out.
Over the next 15 minutes, Hilltop added two more goals — one each by Jimmy Estrada and Steven Jaramillo — to make it 4-0 Hilltop. According to Lancer coach John Salts, Hilltop then went into a comfort zone for about 10 minutes left in the first half, with Rancho Bernardo taking full advantage of it by scoring two quick goals to bring the match to a 4-2 halftime score.
Hilltop's Estrada re-started the Lancer scoring at the five minutes into the second half, followed 10 minutes later by Hernandez' second goal of the match to make it 6-2.
Hilltop improved to 2-0 in the Coronado tournament’s Premier Division bracket with a 3-1 victory over Westview on Thursday.
The teams earned the top two seeds in last season’s Division II section playoffs and, according to Salts, “definitely did not disappoint the billing.”
“They gave the fans one incredible soccer match,” the Lancer coach said.
Hilltop scored four times in this match, including an own goal off the foot of a Lancer defender.
“Westview definitely kept the pressure on throughout the entire match with their powerful play and speed throughout their lineup,” Salts said.
Hilltop's goals were from Estrada, Hernandez and Jaramillo.
Estrada started the scoring at the 24-minute mark off a crossing pass by sophomore Victor Alfaro. That goal was followed three minutes later by the own goal.
The second half scoring started with a line-drive shot by Hernandez from about 28 yards out off a pass from Estrada. Hilltop added an insurance goal in the 79th minute when Hernandez crossed the ball to Jarimillo, who redirected the ball past the Westview netminder into the side netting to clinch the 3-1 victory against what Salts termed “an incredibly powerful” Westview squad.
Hilltop returns to the pitch against Granite Hills on Saturday at 3:15 p.m. at Coronado HS.