Overwhelmed by emotion, Jonathan Bautista collapsed to the familiar grass at Dino Cunial Field with tears and sweat dripping down his face as East Union head coach Ronnie Green gathered the Lancers at midfield following their latest triumph.
“Hey,” Green said. “We’re not done yet.”
The second-seeded Lancers’ historic march continues in the CIF Northern California Division III Regional Championships after their 2-1 semifinal win over No. 3 Branham of San Jose on Thursday. Alex Arroyo accounted for both of EU’s sterling goals, including the go-ahead in the 71st minute.
The rest was left to goalkeeper Fernando Ambriz (three saves), centerback Bautista and the rest of the defense to hold off the dangerous Bruins in the end.
“We worked so hard for this,” Bautista said. “It makes up for last year, all of our mistakes. After all the practices, all the talks, we put our souls into this.”
The Lancers’ disappointing end to 2019 — back-to-back losses in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final and NorCal Division IV opener — is long forgotten now. On Saturday, they’ll get to host one last match this season as they await No. 4 Harker (18-3-3) for the program’s first-ever NorCal final.
Harker is another San Jose-based powerhouse and the reigning Central Coast Section Division III champion. The Eagles upset top-seeded Ygnacio Valley in the other semifinal via penalty-kick shotoout.
East Union (16-3-8) has reason to feel confident going into it having just played its 15th match without a loss. The Lancers are 13-0-2 since their 2-1 loss to Valley Oak League champion Weston Ranch on Jan. 7, and the streak includes a 2-0 upset over No. 1-seeded Galt in the SJS Division III championship.
“I’ve been telling the kids for weeks, actually months now, that I think we’re the best team in California if we keep mentally strong,” Green said. “It’s a mental game, and they’re playing very well at a top level.”
It took a high-caliber effort to oust a talented Branham (17-7-2) side that boasts the speed and size that make the CCS Division II champ so effective on counter-attacks and set pieces.
East Union was up to the task, using skill and precision to win the overall possession battle.
“It was just a matter of finishing shots, getting opportunities and shooting more,” Green said.
Enter Arroyo, who powered one in from distance and used finesse for the other.
The astonishing thunder strike came in the eighth minute. Noe Martinez gave it to him with a short pass, and from about 35 yards out Arroyo unleashed the mighty right boot.
Arroyo also gives his dad the assist.
“Before every game my dad tells me to shoot from far,” he said. “He says if I crack one it will go in, and we’re not going to win if we don’t shoot. When I had the open shot I just thought of my dad.”
He didn’t have much time to think about the game-winner, and it was the splendid set-up on a corner kick that made it so impressive.
It started with Jonathan Ponce’s corner kick from the left flag, and he crossed it past the opposite post to an open Alberto Gomez. Gomez headed it Martinez, who then dished a negative ball to Cristian Perez on the first touch.
With defenders coming toward him at the 18-yard line, Perez quickly trapped it and slid it through to Arroyo, who placed it low and inside the right post past the diving keeper.
“I saw the ball was coming to me and I knew that if I took one touch the defender was going to come and get it,” Arroyo said. “It was just reflexes. It was a reaction shot.”
Sophomore Ian Hutt scored Branham’s goal, his team-leading 19th for the season. Defender Max Sharp launched a long throw-in from the right touchline, and Hutt beat Ambriz in the air for the headed shot that was deflected past the goal line.
That tied the score in the 20th minute.
“It didn’t take much for us to rebound (from the goal),” Bautista said. “We never give up. Last game we were down and we still pulled through in the end. We just don’t stop.”
Even though East Union was in control for much of the game possession-wise, Branham was never out of it because of its various weapons, from set-piece specialist Jaeson Gonzalez (he had three near-misses on direct kicks, one saved by Ambriz) to the speedy Hutt (he had one counter-attack goal negated by an offside) and strong-armed Sharp (whose throw-ins are as good as corner kicks).
“We gave them too many opportunities, giving up those throw-ins and giving them set pieces with dumb fouls,” Green said. “But Fernando had a great game at goal The ball was in the box a lot, and we defended very well even with the three-back (formation).”
And they’ll have one more chance to defend their turf on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m., though it may move to a later time.
“We had a dynasty when (assistant) coach Jason (Silva) and I won three (Valley Oak League) championships here back-to-back-back,” said Green, a 1992 East Union graduate. “I told these kids they’re a million times better than we ever were and they keep proving it.”