by: PHIL HAWKINS - Gervais midfielder Eliceo Leal (left) fights for the ball deep in Santiam Christian territory toward the end of the Cougars 7-0 victory over the visiting Eagles Oct. 8. Gervais is currently third in the district standings and on the cusp of their first trip to the playoffs since 2008.With just over half the games in the league schedule complete, the Gervais boys soccer team is starting to turn heads with its spectacular play in recent weeks. Not least of those impressed with the team’s strong 2013 is Gervais head coach Juan Flores.

“I’m so surprised,” said Flores after the Cougars’ 7-0 drubbing of Santiam Christian Tuesday. “This is a team I’ve wanted for a long time.”

Tuesday’s victory was the Cougars’ first win over the Eagles since 2008. Sophomore forward Peter Top led the team with three goals, followed by two scores from Israel Santos, and one each from Gonzolo Zamora and Marcos Ramirez.

Following the victory, the Cougars traveled to Western Mennonite High School Thursday and played the Pioneers to a 1-1 draw. Top scored Gervais’ lone goal, as the Cougars were able to go toe-to-toe with one of the top programs in Special District 3.

After last week, the Cougars (3-2-3, 3-1-1 SD3) have firmly established themselves as one of the top teams within the conference as they seek to end a state playoff drought that has lasted five years.

Gervais entered the season with a young core of players that, while talented, wasn’t expected to compete with the top teams in the Special District 3 Conference for another year. But several breaks have gone the Cougars’ way this year, paving the way for the team to make a run at the state playoff bracket.

One significant factor has been an increase in available playoff berths in Special District 3. Changes to this year’s playoff format expanded the number of state playoff teams awarded to SD3 from three to five. The league tournament was eliminated from the schedule, and the top five teams in the league standings at the end of the season will advance to the state tournament.

At the same time, several traditional league powers have taken a step back this season. Last year’s league champion, Santiam Christian, is 2-7 this season and hasn’t been remotely competitive, getting shut out in five of nine matches. Pleasant Hill also made it to the playoffs in 2012, but thus far, has only scored one goal in nine games.

by: PHIL HAWKINS - Gervais forward Peter Top (right) celebrates with teammate Marcos Ramirez after scoring against East Linn Christian Sept. 30. Top has blossomed into a dominant scorer in his sophomore season, leading the team with 16 goals in eight games.The increased playoff berths and drop off of the Eagles and Billies give Gervais an opening to compete this year. The emergence of Top and other young Cougar players has come at precisely the right time.

Gervais has been playing incredibly efficient soccer this season, particularly since the final week of September. In a four game stretch from Sept. 27 through Oct. 8, the Cougars scored shut out victories over East Linn Christian, Jefferson and Santiam Christian by six or more goals.

Gervais’ only two losses this season have come against ranked opponents, in a 5-2 loss against No. 2 Riverdale (7-0, 4-0 SD1) and 7-1 against No. 10 Blanchet (5-1-2, 2-0 SD3). Outside of those two games, Gervais has outscored opponents 24-5.

Top has led the offensive charge, notching 16 goals this season, including a six-goal output against East Linn.

Four conference games remain in the regular season, and Gervais is one of five teams – along with Western Mennonite, Delphian, Blanchet and Dayton – that are distancing themselves from the rest of the league for the conference playoff berths.

“We haven’t been in the playoffs in a while, so that’s my goal,” said Flores. “We have to keep working hard, hard, hard. Every day.”

While the Cougars have put themselves in position for the team’s first playoff berth in years, Flores wants to leave nothing to chance.

“I told my guys, we got to win all four,” he said before the team’s game against the Pioneers. “If we win, we make it. So that’s our goal, playoffs.”

Gervais has three games remaining in the regular season. The team plays just once this week in a Tuesday match at home against Pleasant Hill (0-7-2, 0-3-1). The Cougars finish the season with games against Dayton (4-3-2, 2-2) Oct. 22 and at Delphian (4-5-1, 2-2) Oct. 25.

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