When Isela Rivera woke the morning following the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship and a celebratory pool party, she didn’t need a pinch to know it was real.
All the proof the East Union striker needed was lying next to her on the couch.
Less than 24 hours earlier, the East Union girls soccer team punctuated its historic season with the ultimate cherry – a blue section banner.
Rivera scored twice in the final, lifting the Lancers to a 3-2 victory over Vista del Lago and its roster of college-bound stars. In the far corner of the A.G. Spanos Stadium, East Union danced in a circle, celebrating a near-perfect run through one of the section’s toughest conferences and postseason tournaments.
The Lancers finished 21-0-1 and ranked fifth in the state by Maxpreps.
In the middle of the circle stood Rivera, the Bulletin’s Girls Soccer Player of the Year, which seemed fitting because the dynamo left her mark on nearly every East Union victory.
“My senior year, looking back at it, was incredible,” she said. “First off, being able to play with my two sisters (Isabella and Ilena) was amazing. Then to have the group and the team we had was awesome. We had great chemistry. We worked well together.
“To be able to say we won not only VOLs but sections … it’s something that’s never happened at East Union. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
She closed her career with 29 goals – tops in the Valley Oak League – and 10 assists. She saved her best moments for the postseason, including back-to-back goals in the first half to stun Vista del Lago, a former champion.
Rivera didn’t just bring home a championship.
She literally brought home the championship.
The two-time VOL MVP was allowed to keep the blue banner for two days, snuggling with it on the couch during a lazy Sunday morning before presenting it to the rest of the school on Monday.
“On Sunday morning, I brought the banner downstairs and kept it next to me while I watched TV,” she said. “The family came down and started laughing. ‘What are you doing?’ I told them, ‘Oh, just chilling with banner.’ By Monday, I still hadn’t come down from the high of winning.”
She earned the extra time.
The San Jose State-bound striker returned from a one-year hiatus with an explosion of goals. She scored with her head, her heel and her rocket right foot. She slammed home goals from inside the 18-yard box and laser-targeted the corners from distance.
Rivera had five hat tricks, including three straight to start her season. She tallied a season-high four goals in a come-from-behind victory over Sierra High and said said that performance, coupled with a game-winning free kick to beat Manteca High on senior night, signaled a shift in the city’s balance of power.
“It’s always a big deal to beat Sierra because they have been a powerhouse,” Rivera said. “Sierra has always been No. 1 and Manteca’s been No. 2, and then there was East Union.
“These past couple of years with us being able to make a name for East Union, it shows the entire town that we can take care of business too.”
Rivera dazzled in the postseason.
She beat Liberty Ranch in the semifinal round with a low-struck, 35-yard free kick in the waning moments of the game. The goal answered a stunning free kick by Liberty Ranch just minutes earlier.
Rivera’s blast tailed away from the goalie and then crashed into the side panel, triggering a wild sideline celebration. Rivera wagged her index finger toward the crowd before she was mobbed by her teammates.
One week later, she would wave something else at the home crowd – a blue banner. Rivera tallied goals in the 12th and 21st minutes on a back-post header and spin-and-hit volley to knock Vista del Lago on its heels.
“My favorite moment was stepping on that field for the section championship with my two siblings,” she said. “Being able to say I experienced that with my best friends and my siblings, something so once-in-a-lifetime, was unbelievable.”
The challenge now is to see if she can do it on her own … on a new campus … with a new team.
Rivera is bound for San Jose State, a Division I program looking to recreate itself under first-year coach Lauren Hanson. Rivera is projected as a midfielder, but her minutes aren’t guaranteed. She has to prove herself – and the auditions begin in earnest.
Her first order of business: Her fitness.
“My thing, I have to be in the best shape of my life. I have to be on top of my game at all times,” she said. “In high school, you could have an off game and still do pretty well. In college, you get your minutes and if you do well, you’ll get more minutes the next game.
“You’re always fighting for a spot at the D-I level. No one is guaranteed anything. I’m going to have to work 10 times harder to make sure I’m playing the best soccer I’ve ever played.”