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Cougars play Liberty Ranch for section title

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Freshman forward Francisco Garcia takes a foul against Woodland during Weston Ranch’s Sac-Joaquin Section semifinal on Wednesday.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

POSTED November 16, 2013 12:51 a.m.

STOCKTON – Only one team stands between the Weston Ranch boys soccer team and the school’s first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section championship.

And head coach Francisco Cisneros’ assessment of Liberty Ranch is simple: “They’re a lot like us.”

Well then, this should be an interesting final.

The top-seeded Cougars (17-5-4), undefeated in more than a month, tangle with No. 3 Liberty Ranch (13-8-2)  today at Stagg High. The Hawks have won five consecutive games, outscoring their opponents 25-4.

“It’s our dream to be champions,” said Weston Ranch sophomore Esteban Paramo, who kicked the decisive penalty kick in Wednesday’s thrilling shootout victory over Woodland. “We’re going to give it our all and see what happens.”

Not everything about the two schools are similar. For instance, they’ve taken completely different paths to today’s final.

Liberty Ranch has been in complete control in its two playoff victories. The Hawks rolled over Lindhurst 6-2 in the first round and then blanked Dixon 4-0 on Wednesday.

Brian Szyper has had the Midas touch, registering back-to-back hat tricks. He has 16 goals in 18 games.

Sophomore Marcus Guerrero leads the Wolves’ balanced attack with 17 goals and 12 assists. Senior Juan Carlos Ramirez has also tallied 16 goals, including one in Wednesday’s semifinal.

“Everyone’s excited and we like our chances,” Hawks assistant coach Joe Guerrero told the Lodi News-Sentinel following Wednesday’s 4-0 win over Dixon. “We’ve been executing really well the last five games and we’re on a roll.”

Meanwhile, Weston Ranch, which slugged its way to a No. 1 seed with a late-season push in the Valley Oak League, has kept its fans on pins and needles during this scintillating playoff run.

Each of its postseason games have been decided in a penalty kick shootout. Playing without two starters, including striker Hector Maldonado (14 goals), the Cougars topped Natomas, 5-3.

On Wednesday, Weston Ranch rallied back from a 1-0 deficit, sending the game into overtime with a penalty kick goal by Maldonado in the 42nd minute. After two 10-minute periods, the Cougars converted all seven of their penalty kicks to knock off Woodland, 7-6.

Woodland’s only miss was a shot over the crossbar in the seventh round of the shootout.

“Our first mission was to make it to the playoffs,” said Maldonado, who sat out the first-round game because of a red card in the VOL finale with Sierra. “ Thanks to God we’re in the finals now.”

Cisneros isn’t concerned by the close nature of Weston Ranch’s games. He says his club has been in playoff mode since the beginning of October – and the schedule certainly agrees.

The Cougars have beaten three playoff teams, including Division III qualifier Manteca, and tied Sierra and Oakdale, another D-III qualifier.

Weston Ranch’s nine-game unbeaten streak includes seven victories.

“We’ve been playing really good teams,” Cisneros said. “Starting with Oakdale and Sierra, and now into the playoffs. It is what it is. When you’ve got two good teams, you’ve got to come out and find ways to win.”

The Cougars’ chances were bolstered on Wednesday with the return of Maldonado.

His return created opportunity for freshman Francisco Garcia, who was dangerous in 1-on-1 situations.

Garcia created the most chances of any player, often off passes and flicks from Maldonado. He had three legitimate scoring opportunities during a six-minute stretch in the second half.

Though he was held scoreless, Garcia’s ability to knife through the defense resulted in the penalty kick in the 42nd minute.

“We’re clicking,” Maldonado said.

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