You didn’t need the prestige of Jimmy the Greek to pick a winner between Escalon and Riverbank High’s girls soccer programs when the two teams met in the Trans-Valley League opener on Friday, March 8.
Escalon beat Riverbank by a combined 15-0 scoring margin last year and rolled into the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs while the Bruins floundered to only two conference wins and graduated four-year varsity captain Celina Lopez.
But gopher holes aside, this was an even playing field.
The host Lady Bruins scored 15 minutes into the game and carried a deadlock into the final minute, ultimately slipping 4-3 after a costly defensive mishap and late score gave Escalon the edge.
“Escalon has some good club players and they aren’t all freshmen and sophomores,” Riverbank coach Martin Gonzales said on Sunday. “Our time is coming.”
The Bruins led 3-2 in the second half, but saw Escalon land the equalizer when a routine kick up field was whiffed by a Riverbank defender. The play exposed an open goal and easy score for Escalon, who later rallied to score in the final moments to avoid the upset.
“We won’t make that mistake again,” Gonzales said. “The ball just rolled past her and they put it through.
“She usually scoops that up, but it just happened. That’s how close that game was.”
Escalon joined TVL champ, Hilmar, and third place Hughson in the Division V playoffs last year. The Cougars compete with a collection of 14 seniors and juniors and roster just five underclassmen.
Riverbank is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The Bruins utilize 14 freshmen and sophomores and start only a few of the six upperclassmen on the team.
The inexperience was a big reason the squad struggled to an 0-6 preseason stanza, but their opponents included undefeated Kimball (9-0), returning section champs, Millennium, and another three teams that reached the 2012 postseason. It’s a level of opposition the TVL will be unable to duplicate as Riverbank’s young roster continues to grow.
“We had a rough preseason, but I take them to the best tournaments to compete against big schools,” Gonzales said. “I thought maybe that was backfiring on me after we struggled and had some heartbreak, but they responded against Escalon.”
Despite the rocky start, the 2012-13 girls have potential to make school history if they keep up a high level of play against the rest of the conference. The Riverbank girls have never made the SJS playoffs, and would need signature wins against the likes of Escalon, Ripon (3-2) and Hughson (3-3) to get in.
Hilmar is the runaway conference favorite after advancement to the D-V semifinals last year and was a stalwart 5-2 for the preseason in 2013.
“We’ve got to hurt a couple teams in the top three,” Gonzales said. “We have to tie or beat Ripon or Escalon and get into that third spot.
“If we can steal three to five points (TVL standings award two points for a win and one for a tie) and get between 16 and 18 league points, we can get into that third spot.”
The team missed out on a precious conference point by allowing Escalon to escape late, but were in position to win after sophomore standout Lilly Garcia broke through the Cougar defense to land the opening goal. Escalon rallied to a 2-1 lead in the second half, but Kaitlin Jimenez (junior) found the net to tie things up.
Sophomore Jasmine Vigil made it a 3-2 Riverbank lead moments later, but Escalon had the last word with the final two tallies.
Senior captain and midfielder/stopper Andrea Harvey is Riverbank’s lone returning senior. She joins Jimenez (wing forward) and junior Jessica Garcia (defender) as the only starting upperclassmen on the team.
Janelle Luu, a junior and basketball standout, has the potential to nab full-time goaltending duties after departing the track program to give the soccer team her talents. Gonzales said she has developed in big strides and was heavily implemented during the Manteca tournament when injures forced her into active duty. If Luu can get a handle for fundamentals in front of the net, sophomore keeper Monica Lopez would be freed to ditch her gloves for a vital position on the field.
Lopez and fellow sophomores Natalia Villapudua (wing forward), Yvonne Vigil (defender), Alicia Gonzales (forward) and Jasmin Vigil (forward/midfielder) were heavily utilized at the varsity level last year, and represent the more experienced players on the team.
Villapudua made headlines last year when an errant ball struck her eye socket and permanently damaged her vision, but has returned with the speed and aggression that made her a force in 2012.
She also enjoys the company of her freshman sister Allisenda (defender), who along with classmate Deashya Battle (forward) are two of the fastest players on the team.
The squad is rich with underclassman talent, but isn’t considering the 2013 season as a learning experience.
“I’m going to try to get them (to the playoffs) this year,” Gonzales said. “We want that history-making thing to happen this year.”Riverbank is at Orestimba in a key conference contest today, March 13. The team hosts Hilmar on Friday.