Back in August, as teams across the Central Valley prepared for tournaments and non-league games, Victor Polanco kept his team at home.
The East Union boys soccer team trained relentlessly, toiling beneath the late summer sun at Northgate Park.
Polanco was worried more about the Valley Oak League season and keeping his team a mystery to potential playoff teams.
That approach, while unconventional, may prove beneficial for the Lancers, who qualified for the postseason with a 1-1 draw against Manteca on Wednesday.
Striker Gerardo Romero tallied East Union’s only goal and the defense held the Buffaloes scoreless for the final 74 minutes, seizing the third and final playoff berth allotted to the Valley Oak League.
Weston Ranch clinched the outright championship on Monday, while Oakdale locked up the second seed.
East Union (8-4-2, 10-4-3) and Manteca (8-4-2, 12-6-3) arrived on the regular season’s final day tied at 25 points, and they’d remain that way after 80 entertaining minutes.
Ultimately, the difference was the VOL’s first tiebreaker -- head-to-head results. East Union’s 5-3 victory on Oct. 6 was the deciding margin.
The frustration knocked many of Manteca’s stalwarts to their knees following the final whistle. The Buffaloes controlled the final 40 minutes of the match, creating several close chances.
“Close” wouldn’t cut it, though. Not on this night.
“I felt like we could get one,” Manteca coach Justin Coenenberg said. “They’ve come through so many times. They’ve stepped up their entire careers and won some big games late. Going into that situation, I felt like it was one we were prepared for.”
Marcus Montano gave the Buffaloes the early advantage with a 20-yard free kick in the sixth minute. The fourth-year varsity starter bent his shot around the wall and inside the right post, well out of the reach of East Union goalie Bryce Lew (one save).
East Union would level 11 minutes later thanks to a blunder by the Buffaloes. Goalie Jose Zamarripa (two saves) was fooled by a seemingly harmless bouncing ball. It caromed off his chest and onto the foot of Romero, who never stopped running on the play.
“He took his eyes off it,” Coenenberg said. “I think he tried to play it quickly and didn’t secure it.”
It was a classic Romero goal, Polanco said. The junior forward now has a team-high 14 goals in 11 games.
“Gerardo is always in position to score. He chases down every ball,” Polanco added. “And if he doesn’t have a strong defender on him, he’s going to take it right by them.”
The tie continues a run of success for Polanco, who coaches both the boys and girls soccer programs at East Union.
His girls program won their first section championship in the spring, and his boys are back in the postseason for the first time since 2011.
The Lancers will likely compete in the Division III tournament, which begins Tuesday, Nov. 4.
“It’s nice to go back, but we still have some work to do before the next game,” said Polanco, who was a co-coach with Clarence Goes in 2011. “We have a good team. The boys give me everything they have, and I believe we have a team that can play with anybody.”
Meanwhile, Manteca will miss the postseason for the first time in four years.
Senior Carlos Belmonte consoled classmate Alex Hernandez, who missed the last two seasons with a knee injury. Montano waded through the crowd and walked by himself toward the parking lot, a T-shirt pulled over his head.
The end came too soon for a core of seniors that had won a VOL title in 2012 and had never missed the postseason.
The Buffaloes outshot the Lancers 5-2 in the second half.
Jason Maravilla had the best opportunities, chasing the ball from end line to end line. He redirected a corner kick by Montano on goal in the 54th minute, but the shot was snared by Jose Modesto, a second-half substitute.
Later, Maravilla picked up a clearance and raced 70 yards on the counter, juking sweeper Antonio Zuniga and then Modesto.
Unfortunately, his final touch took him away form the open goal and his shot sailed into the side net.
“If you would have told me we would hold them to one (goal), I would say it was a game we could win because of the way we had been scoring,” Coenenberg said. “Our touches were just a little off in the final third.”
East Union 7, Manteca 1
Oscar Soto and Zachary Hernandez notched hat tricks for the Lancers, who completed a perfect season in dominating fashion against their rival.
It’s the third straight VOL championship for coach Edgar Zelaya -- two with the boys and one with the girls.