With five South County teams embedded in this year’s San Diego Section Division III boys soccer bracket, some interesting matchups expected to ensue somewhere along the line.
The Hilltop Lancers received the No. 1 seed in the 12-team draw while the Chula Vista Spartans received the No. 4 seed, the Olympian Eagles received the No. 5 seed, the San Ysidro Cougars received the No 6 seed and the Chula Vista Learning Community Charter Cobras received the No. 9 seed.
San Ysidro, Hilltop and Chula Vista all represented the South Bay League, finishing in the league standings in that order, while Olympian represented the Mesa League as its fifth-place team and the Cobras represented the Frontier Summit League as its champion (6-0-2 league mark).
Hilltop and Chula Vista both received byes in the opening round on Feb. 15.
Olympian, San Ysidro and CVLCC all took the field, however. Olympian fell, 1-0, to 12th-seeded Vista in one upset, while CVLCC dropped a 1-0 decision to eighth-seeded Vista. San Ysidro (9-0-2 in league, 12-4-4 in regular season play) advanced with a 3-1 win over 11th-seeded Kearny.
That set the stage for last Friday’s quarterfinals.
Hilltop, which finished 7-0-5 in league play, 16-1-7 in the regular season, out-muscled Vista, 3-1, on the strength of goals by Kevin Gomez, Gael Aguirre and Jacob Cisneros while Chula Vista (7-2-3, 13-5-5) shaded Mission Hills 4-2 in a shootout following a scoreless overtime tie between the teams.
The longtime west side rivals met in Tuesday’s semifinals on the Lancers’ pitch, with one Metro Conference team guaranteed a berth in Thursday’s division championship game at Patrick Henry High School (4:30 p.m. kickoff).
That team would be Hilltop following a thrill-seeking 2-1 overtime victory.
“As coaches, we can’t say enough on how proud we are of these boys and their hard work,” Lancer head coach John Salts said. “They are an amazing group of young men who have worked very hard this season to set themselves up for the No. 1 seed and run into playoffs.
“What an incredible match! Hilltop versus Chula Vista, one of the longest standing rivalries between two schools in the South County. We tip our caps to coach Ruben Oliveira and the boys at Chula Vista for an amazing season they had and for an exceptional semifinals match.”
That seemed to be a universal sentiment as fans of both teams departed the stadium in the rain.
Senior midfielder Gael Aguirre scored both goals for Hilltop – a rebound shot on a blocked penalty kick in the 52 minute and the game-winner on a 25-yard direct free kick three minutes into sudden victory overtime.
“I’m just so happy I could do this in front of our home crowd, in front of people who I love,” Aguirre said amid a furious rain shower that coincided with post-game handshakes and interviews.
The game was evenly played between the west side rivals. Hilltop goalkeeper Pablo Torrez pulled down a looping cross that appeared ticketed for the upper corner of the net just minutes into the contest. Ironically, that would be the same spot that Aguirre would later deposit his game-winner.
It appeared that Aguirre’s PK might stand up as the winner until Chula Vista’s Josiah Willadsen scored with seconds remaining in injury time to knot the score, 1-1, and send the outrageously exciting match into overtime.
Antonio Marrujo dove to his left to block Aguirre’s spot kick that hit him squarely on the chest. The rebound went high in the air and allowed Aguirre time to rush toward the goal line to knock the ball in with his right foot.
Torrez made two punch saves — one of which smashed off the crossbar — as the visitors increased pressure in a bid to equalize the score. The final 13 minutes of regulation was played at a frenzied pace with Hilltop defensive clearances and frantic Chula Vista offensive attacks.
Willadsen turned on a bouncing ball about 15 yards slightly off center from the Hilltop net and struck as laser shot that boomed past Torrez. The tying goal elicited shrieks of joy from Spartan fans and obviously had to depress the Lancer kickers.
But there was little time to frown as the teams reassembled on the field for the start of the 15-minute golden goal period.
It didn’t take long to determine as winner after Aguirre lifted a drive to the top right-hand corner of the net. Marrujo flew across the cage in vain in a bid to stop it, but the shot was perfectly placed.
Pandemonium erupted on the Hilltop sideline as the Lancers punched their ticket to the division championship game.
Oliveira noted the game was up for grabs. His team played until the final whistle, until the final save … until the final goal.
“They guys never gave up,” Oliveira said. “We had a lot of chances, we hit the crossbar, we had rebounds. I’m proud of the boys. They never gave up. The game was pretty close. Every game against them this season was close.”
Willadsen, Angel Lopez, Karim Madrid and Alonso Arellano (game-winner) all converted their spot kicks in the shootout tiebreaker while Marrujo blocked one kick and another shot went wide to hand the Spartans the win in the preceding quarterfinals.
“It’s been hard, especially with COVID, especially in the first week (of league play),” Oliveira said. “Our thing has been trying to mesh new players into our lineup. They’re all important parts to the puzzle.”
Likewise, two East County teams received seeds in the division playoffs – Santana at No. 2 and Steele Canyon at No. 3.
Both teams received byes to last Friday’s quarterfinals – Steele Canyon defeated San Ysidro, 2-1, while Santana eliminated seventh-seeded Mission Vista, 3-2.
Thus, Tuesday’s bottom bracket semifinal featured Steele Canyon at Santana in an all-East County matchup.
Steele Canyon won, 2-0, to advance to the championship game to meet the Lancers.
Hilltop has enjoyed quite a season to remember with 18 shutouts in 26 games (18-1-7), setting a regular season section record with just seven goals surrendered in 25 matches.
The defense of Dominick Mercado, Fabian Delgado, David Camacho, Max Romero and Torrez continued their dominant play from the season in last Friday’s quarterfinal match.
“Hilltop came out strong and pressed Vista the entire first half end the half with 13 shots scoring on three of them versus Vista’s three shots and no goals,” Salts said. “Hilltops Kevin Gomez, Isaac Rocha, and Gael Aguirre led a sting midfield to help control the pace of the match.”