Fans expecting a high-scoring shootout between the Jesuit and Westview boys soccer teams in a highly anticipated matchup between two of the state's best programs probably walked away a tad disappointed on Monday night.
But, truthfully, what transpired at Westview High School — pitting two unfailing Metro League flagship programs against each other in a de facto conference championship game with much hanging in the balance — should have been envisaged when the season began.
Jesuit's Cesar Cruz scored an early first-half goal on a breakaway steal, only to be equaled by a Liam Kiger left-footed kick 15 minutes later that evened the game at 1-1. From there, the Crusaders and Wildcats were unwilling to yield a morsel of momentum. Shots on goal were scarce. Scoring opportunities were rare.
And so, two teams who could most definitely see each other again in the playoffs left Westview with a 1-1 tie result.
"Whenever we play Jesuit it seems like we can't get anything going on both sides because it's so defensive," Liam Kiger said. "They knew how we wanted to play. Jesuit has good coaches. They always have a good tactic when they play us every year. It's always a fight."
With three games to go, Westview (9-1-1, 4-0-1) and Jesuit (6-1-4, 4-0-1) are in a dead heat for the Metro title. And with each team favored in the final trio of contests, a split of the conference championship wouldn't be out of the question.
"It came down to whoever messed up — whoever made that one mistake was going to lose the game," Cruz said. "But both teams knew how to handle that pressure. We knew a loss could've cost us the Metro League. A win would've been great, but we're OK with the tie. We need to keep this intensity up."
"It's not really a back-stop," Westview senior midfielder Dane Kiger said. "We're still motivated and feeling good. This isn't going to bring us down. We'll be motivated moving on knowing nothing has really changed."
The familiarity and off-field fraternization between the two squads, who have scouted each other extensively and planned tirelessly for Monday's match, made for an 80-minute staring contest in which neither side blinked. Many of Westview and Jesuit's players play with or against each other on the club scene. And the veterans from each team have played each other at the high school level, both in the regular season and the playoffs, before. Each squad knew one another's game's and tactics inside and out.
"It kind of became a match in the middle of the field," Dane Kiger said.
Jesuit jumped out to an early 1-0 lead when Cruz broke away from the Wildcat defense and capped a blast past the laid-out Westview senior keeper Broden Schull just three and a half minutes into the game.
"We came in with the right mindset and put it to them just in terms of having the upper hand in the first 10 minutes," Jesuit goalie Nolan Aylward said. "That set the tempo for the rest of the game."
Jesuit sophomore defender Nathan Gewant pressed Westview's clear attempt, stole the ball and passed ahead to the speeding Cruz, who put the ball in the back of the net.
The wound, Liam Kiger said, was self-inflicted on Westview's behalf. And while he credited Cruz for capitalizing on the cough-up, the Wildcats didn't help themselves in a game that needed to be scrubbed free of mistakes. Even so, it was a correctable and teachable moment.
"It's still positive because I feel the only reason we get scored on is ourselves," Liam Kiger said. "We haven't been broken down by a team yet, which is good with us. We just need to sort that out. We know what we need to do know and the kind of style of play we'll have to play if we're going to take down teams like this in the future."
The high-scoring Wildcats, however, weren't deterred and equalized the game on a play befitting of Westview's scoring exploits this season. Schull accepted a pass from the Wildcat defense back by the Jesuit goal and drilled a monster goal kick into a throng of Wildcat forwards at the other end of the pitch. Aylward blocked King's downfield lob and thwarted Westview senior Jonathan Guitierrez-Saucedo who tried to pound the ball through the keeper's gloves. Yet, Liam Kiger came charging in from the left side of the field and with Aylward still out top and just a pair of Crusader defenders barricading the net with only their feet and bodies to stop a shot on goal, the Wildcat forward found the left corner and threaded the ball through the defense for the equalizer, 1-1, midway through the first half.
"I didn't have to do much, I was just in the right spot at the right time," Liam Kiger said. "When you see the ball coming in and there are that many people in the box, I knew Jesuit wasn't going to be able to clear it. I just waited for the ball and it popped out to me."
The game-tying play was all set up by Schull's downfield boom, which has become another asset in Westview's treasure chest of scoring options. Both Schull and Davis King, who played between the posts in the second half, can crush the ball when the Wildcats have a goal kick, which gives Westview's offense a running start and less terrain to have to navigate. It's essentially a long outlet pass that jump-starts the fast break.
"You can make those runs and expect (the Westview keepers) to hit you," said Dane Kiger. "It's really nice to have those two back there. It's another weapon for us."
Coming into the game, Westview had scored an absurd 55 goals in just 10 games — 16 more than McMinnville, which boasts the second-highest total at the 6A level.
The Crusaders quelled Westview's high-flying, record-pace scoring attack by bringing their forwards back toward the other side of the pitch to clog the middle, short-circuiting the Wildcats' free-flowing passing lanes. Sans Cruz, who stayed up top, Jesuit's attempt to stall Westview was a 10-man attempt, one that saw senior forward Seifu Zerabruk fall back and play hard-nosed defense against Kiger, Alex Monroy, Zach Velasco and Jose Sarabia-Maldonando.
Gewant and Jesuit junior Oscar Baudey, amongst others, ensured Westview wouldn't get more than one tally on the board. Jesuit's Collin Slingsby and Ben Landauer both had decent looks at the frame in the second half, but all in all, the game became a grimy, watchful event.
"It's just the mindset of the defenders, knowing this was an important game and they had to give everything they had to try and keep a clean sheet," Cruz said. "Every tackle they went hard, and every 50-50 ball they tried to win it."