It didn’t take long for Dante Jackson to introduce himself to goalie Fernando Segura and the rest of the East Union defense.
He helped set the tone in the opening minute of the CIF Northern California Division IV Regional Championships first-round contest, and the fleet-of-foot forward propelled Pleasant Valley to a one-sided 3-0 victory with a hat trick.
“Speed,” East Union coach Ronnie Green said. “All speed. He’s the fastest guy that we’ve played against this year.”
His No. 3-seeded Lancers (20-8-2) nearly trailed just 40 seconds into it after losing possession near midfield. Jackson bolted down the right side and unleashed a powerful strike that went directly to Segura, who ended a busy match in the box with nine saves.
The first shot may have been a miss, but the No. 6 Vikings (17-9-2) from Chico kept coming. They fired the game’s first five shots within the first five minutes, were oftentimes first to the ball and seemed to have a better handle on the slick surface of Dino Cunial Field than the home side.
Pleasant Valley travels to Concord on Thursday to face No. 2 Ygnacio Valley (14-4-6) in the semifinals. Cross-town rival and top seed Chico (18-4-1) hosts No. 4 Leigh (15-4-4) of San Jose on the other side of the bracket.
“We came out flat, and maybe it went against us playing on turf and better fields in our last three games,” Green said. “We just couldn’t put the touches together today. They came out strong and they’re a good team, there’s no doubt about it. I have complete respect for them.”
East Union still had a chance to tilt the early momentum. The Lancers didn’t take their first crack at Pleasant Valley’s goal until the 19th minute when Giovanni Padilla slammed it off the upper-right corner of the frame. They had other quality looks from German Gonzalez and Jonathan Ponce in the first half, but PV was the all-around dominant squad.
The Vikings outshot East Union 16-4 in the first half to go with a 6-0 advantage on corner kicks.
“Gio had a banger off the crossbar, and if that goes in the whole game changes,” Green said. “We didn’t finish, and we just didn’t get a whole lot of shots off.”
Credit certainly goes to Pleasant Valley’s defense led by senior keeper Austin Matthews (five saves) and first-year head coach Nic Lopez, who did his homework on East Union. The Vikings, for the most part, were able to neutralize the quick-striking capabilities of Padilla (27 goals, 13 assists) and Gonzalez (20 goals, 11 assists).
“I knew they were trying to hit some of their target guys up there and play direct to get us out of shape,” Lopez said. “We worked really hard all season to be organized defensively, shifting our guys and talking and communicating. It just really showed today that it was all there. This was a very tough team with some dangerous players so this was a very good showing for us.”
And a scintillating showing for Jackson on the offensive third. At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, the junior striker gave East Union’s back line fits with his relentless work rate, speed, strength and skill.
Jackson notched the first goal in the 26th minute, working off a deft heel pass from Caden Crumm. Jackson blew between Lancers defenders on the counter attack and touched it past the charging Segura.
The lead widened in the third minute of the second half when Jackson beat Segura to a 50-50 ball outside of the penalty box and curled it into the right panel as the East Union keeper tried to hustle back to his line.
Jackson completed the hat trick with brawn and power in the 55th minute, shedding a defender before crushing a low liner past Segura. He came into the contest ranked 12th in the state with 34 goals.
“There’s a reason why he’s as good as he is,” Lopez said. “With his talent plus the work ethic and his character, he gets these kinds of results on the field. You don’t always see a player like that at this level and I feel blessed to have him.”
Green hopes East Union’s first-ever NorCal appearance — and first for any VOL boys team — serves as a good learning experience. In the final 10 minutes he began rotating in his seniors and junior varsity call-ups to let them have a taste.
“We had a great run,” he said. “When you get beat by a quality team in the Regionals it’s not hard to take. You just take your lumps sometimes and learn from it.”