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1 with a BULLET

Isela Rivera’s late free kick sends EU to first final

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1 with a BULLET

East Union center back Mariah Jeffery soars for a header on Wednesday.

Photo by SEAN KAHLER/


POSTED May 15, 2014 12:36 a.m.

When she was little, on the cusp of becoming a Division I-caliber player, Isela Rivera’s father would keep the budding young striker reaching and wanting and hungry with the Three Bs speech.

On Wednesday, with East Union’s historic season hanging in the balance, Rivera drew on the three Bs and delivered an A-plus goal to lift the Lancers into their first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section championship game.

Rivera spun a 35-yard free kick inside the right post with less than three minutes left as East Union outlasted Liberty Ranch in a thrilling Division IV semifinal, 3-2.

As for those Bs?

“All I kept thinking about were those three Bs that my dad taught me about when I was little,” said Rivera, bound for San Jose State in the fall.

“Big players make big plays in big games. I had to make that goal for my team.”

The Lancers (18-0-1) will play Vista del Lago on Saturday at Lincoln High in Stockton, a familiar backdrop for many of the section’s football and soccer finals.

East Union, long a powerhouse in the Valley Oak League, will see the stadium from the field level for the first time thanks to the heroics of their senior captain.

Quiet for most of the match, Rivera was awarded one last opportunity to leave her mark on the game when freshman Jenna Zuniga was taken down by the last defender.

Fresh off the bench, Zuniga charged onto a through ball from Ilena Rivera. Defender McKenzie Gregorio – playing her first match of the season – pulled Zuniga down from behind when it was clear the fleet-footed Lancer had a step.

Gregorio was sent off with a yellow card and East Union’s scoring champion was given a free shot from about 35 yards out, well within her range.

“Jenna got the foul and did a great job of getting in front of her to make her foul her,” Isela said. “I said, ‘You know what – my team deserves to go to sections, so I’m finishing this.’”

Her shot tailed away from goalie Aubree Torgenson, a second-half substitution. When the ball crashed into the side panel, Isela was mobbed by teammates near the sideline.

“As soon as it hit the bottom corner, it was like ‘Oh yes, thank goodness,’” she said.

Never a doubt, said East Union coach Victor Polanco.

Isela had been silenced by the Hawks defense for most of the match, but the first-year coach knew his star pupil would eventually find the back of the net.

She just kept everyone in suspense till the very end.

“She can miss two or three, but I know she’ll put one inside the net,” Polanco said. “Anything can happen. It was (three) minutes before it ended and anything can happen in those (three) minutes. We were pushing them and looking for the victory.”

Liberty Ranch would push back. A couple of times, actually.

The Hawks tied the game at 2-2 with a heroic free kick of their own just three minutes earlier.

Defender Rhea Hartwell lifted a 50-yard shot – with more arc than pace – over the outstretched hands of goalie Taylor Gray (four saves).

As unlikely as that shot attempt seemed, Rivera was not surprised. Hartwell had been booming 40- and 50-yard goal kicks and clearances all evening.

Rivera’s only contention was the foul that awarded Liberty Ranch the free kick. Forward Jessica Hartwell fell to the turf following a collision with Isabella Rivera, favoring her ankle. The whistle, East Union contends, came well after the play.

“It’s frustrating because that shouldn’t have been a goal in the first place. There was no foul,” Isela said. “When a shot is lobbed up like that … everything is taken out of you.”

East Union wouldn’t be down for long. The Lancers rallied back, trusting its captain with the final shot.

“We had (six) minutes left, so it was like let’s go. Let’s see what we can do. We had time,” she said. “Everyone wanted it those last few minutes and you could tell.”

East Union took 1-0 lead in the half on substitute Arianna Cardena’s goal in the in the 34th minute.

Ilena lifted a cross into the box that was mishandled by goalie Jenna Stiehr. It fell to Cardenas’ foot and she pushed it over the goal line.

Liberty Ranch answered back in the opening minute of the second half. Left unmarked in the middle of the field, Savannah Porter collected a pass near the top of the 18-yard box, deked a sliding Gray and finished in the open net.

With temperatures at or near the century mark, Polanco kept his bench busy, shuffling players in and out of the midfield.

He hit once with Cardenas in the first half, and he’d do it again with Marissa King.

Polanco pushed the defender into the midfield, where her length and speed would dominate the right sideline.

King, an all-Valley Oak League selection at midfield in 2012, raced onto a through ball from Isabella in the 45th minute and ripped a right-footed shot into the left panel as the Lancers reclaimed the lead, 2-1.

“What I tried today was to give a little rest to my midfielders,” Polanco said. “They’re the engines on this team and I wanted to give them rest because it was hot.

“All my midfielders are pretty tough. They can score anytime. What we’re looking for is the opportunity. When they get the ball, they knew how to score, whether it’s from 18 yards or 35.”

The win capped a banner day for the area’s top soccer programs. Earlier in the day, Manteca and Ripon Christian advanced to section finals in divisions III and VII, respectively, by identical 4-1 margins.

The Lancers’ historic victory played like a section final – tight, physical and to the final whistle.

For the first time all season, East Union wasn’t a shoo-in to win. In fact, Liberty Ranch (12-2-2) entered the game with the better resume.

The Hawks annexed their first section championship last spring, winning the Division V tournament. Their intentions for claiming a D-IV championship were honest and warranted.

But so were East Union’s, which stretched its season-long unbeaten streak to 19 games.

“They came in here to win. They didn’t come in here to play against us and that’s it,” Polanco said. “They pushed us and like I said, they came to win. It was a good opponent and I think we’re ready for the sections.”

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