Valiants continue to surprise, press past Tillamook
It's possible that a one-goal lead could have slipped away from Valley Catholic a year or two ago.
Too many times the Valiants boys soccer team would jump ahead of an opponent early, only to get caught sleeping and give up the lead and ultimately the game.
Those days, however, are over and done with.
Gone are the games where Valley can't finish. No more are the Valiants an easily vanquishable out in the Cowapa League. Winning times are here at last and if Valley keeps up this pace, the postseason won't just be a pipe dream, but more a proving ground to see how far the Valiants can go.
Valley extended its pioneering start to the season on Tuesday, taking down Tillamook 1-0 thanks to a senior Jake Saito first-half goal that was assisted by fellow senior Garrett Gilbert.
Valley has now won more games (seven) this season than they did the prior three seasons combined. The Valiants' four Cowapa League triumphs are one more than the past three years total as well. At 7-1-1 overall, Valley is No. 6 in the 4A power rankings and sits just a game back of Seaside for first place in the Cowapa.
"Going from last to first is a great feeling," Saito said with a smile. "I feel like this is our year. I feel like we can win the league, make the playoffs and see how far we can go from there. We have nine seniors on this team, so it's kind of a now-or-never type of mentality in our last year playing together. We want to get as far as we can in the playoffs. We're getting confident, but we're not letting this get to our heads. We're going to show our opponents the respect they deserve."
Gilbert and Saito have gone through every growing pang and experienced each low as it's come. Though Valley has nine seniors on the roster currently, Gilbert and Saito have played varsity all four years. They were there a year ago when Valley won just one game and went winless in league play. But they never threw in the towel, never looked to jump ship or bail on the process. Their long-time suffering has been turned to satisfaction. And now they're reaping the rewards in earnest.
"There's been a lot of hard work without a lot of good outcomes and it's finally led up to something great and that's just amazing," Gilbert said. "We just have to keep working hard, play our game and outwork everybody."
The sweeping change from cellar occupant to title contender started off the field, Saito said. Once the Valiants started to get to know each other off of the field on a more personal level and started investing in each other away from the pitch, team camaraderie improved come game-time.
"This year we're playing for each other instead of our own selves," Saito said. "We're holding each other accountable. I think the chemistry has been really good. That's been a huge key to our success."
Just ten minutes into the first half against Tillamook, Saito accepted an exceptional pass ahead from Gilbert along the right side of the pitch, got a step on his Cheesemaker defender with his speed and as the attacking Tillamook goalie made a last-gasp effort to stop the onrush, Saito coolly flipped the ball over the diving defender into the net to give Valley a 1-0 lead. Gilbert and Saito have played together for nearly a decade and their telepathic link was clear as the duo didn't need to call attention to the pass. Gilbert could sense Saito was open and delivered the ball only where his fellow senior could run it down. From there, Saito let his scoring instinct take over.
"I was just thinking 'don't miss,'" Saito said with a laugh. "I just wanted to get it in the goal any way I could. (Gilbert) and I have been playing club soccer together since we were eight, nine years old, so we know each other pretty well. We know each other's play styles, the runs we make. The connection is definitely there."
"The first 10 minutes really mattered," Gilbert added. "We wanted to come out, play hard and outwork Tillamook. I'm really happy with that effort."
Tillamook took a more aggressive approach in the second half, but Valley's Rylan Torres, Thomas Melillo, Garratt Alles and Ethan Bly held up on the backline with tough, hard-nosed defense that made the Cheesemakers pay for coming into the final third of the pitch. And in the rare moments when the Cheesemakers went to the frame, sophomore goalie Connor Matto made sure Valley kept the scoreboard clean with a pair of saves.
Midway through the second half, Tillamook got tricky and turned a free kick into a veiled pass toward the center of the pitch. Alles, however, wasn't having it and destroyed the Tillamook forward with a clean check to deactivate the charge. Valley didn't have as many scoring chances or shots on goal as it did in the first half, but Alles, Matto, and company ensure the Valiants wouldn't end up with a tie.
"Staying focused is really important as we get further in the game," Gilbert said. "We've been working really hard on keeping our composure once we get up or take a lead."