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Cougars win first playoff game
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STOCKTON — The littlest of Cougars came up big in Weston Ranch’s first-ever postseason soccer game.

First it was the mitts of senior goalie Jose Avila. Then the steady right boot of freshman Francisco Garcia, who punctuated Thursday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV thriller.

“Panchito” — or “little Francisco” — clinched top-seeded Weston Ranch’s shootout victory, 5-3, after battling No. 8 Natomas of Sacramento to a 1-1 draw through 100 minutes of regulation. Like the four shooters before him, Garcia placed his shot low and to the left.

Esteban Paramo, Arthur Garcia, Kevin Medina and Joseph Mayorca converted their attempts in order.

“I knew since the beginning that I was going to shoot it there — that’s my spot,” Garcia said. “I knew I was going to make it.”

Hello, history.

Garcia was greeted on the field by the rambunctious spectators who added to the electricity of this special night in Cougar Country.

Avila, Weston Ranch’s other diminutive hero, had his moment on Natomas’ third PK attempt, diving to his left and slapping it away with both hands.

“I got real pumped up because of the fans,” said Avila, who is about 5-foot-5 with cleats on. “That was the reason I blocked that penalty shot. Something just told me to lean to my left and I reacted. It’s a great feeling because this is the first time Weston Ranch has ever made it this far.”

Medina scored Weston Ranch’s goal in regulation just four minutes into the second half. Garcia set up Mayorca for the initial shot, but it was deflected by Natomas’ 6-foot keeper, Alejandro Godinez. The ball still made its way toward the Nighthawks goal, and Medina raced in to finish it off.

Avila came up with a big save on the other end in the 71st minute when Ruben Mendoza’s uncontested chip shot from short range was touched away. Two minutes later, Natomas’ top scorer, Baltazar Silva, unleashed a low laser shot from about 25 yards out that got by Avila for the equalizer.

“I knew we were going to pull it out somehow,” Weston Ranch coach Francisco Cisneros said. “These guys have responded all season long and I knew they were going to come through again.”

They did it after two 10-minute overtime periods went by without a score.

The Cougars (16-5-4) are the only remaining team from the Valley Oak League after champion Oakdale and runner-up Manteca were eliminated in the second round of the Division III tournament. Next Wednesday they play host to No. 4 Woodland (6-5-1), a 3-1 winner over No. 5 Center.

The good news for Weston Ranch is that it gets back its hottest scorer, Hector Maldonado, and starting defender Alex Gonzalez. They served one-game suspensions for receiving red cards in their VOL finale at Sierra.

While Weston Ranch eventually got its offense on track in the second half, it was a struggle to produce threatening runs over the opening 40 minutes of the match. It wasn’t until Garcia’s short-distance strike in the 33rd minute that the Cougars attempted their first shot.

“We really needed Hector,” Garcia said. “He’s a big part of our team. He’s a big, strong guy and not having him affected us tonight. But we got the win and we’ll get him for next game.”

On the other side of the bracket, seventh-seeded Dixon upset No. 2 Placer 2-1, and No. 3 Liberty Ranch clobbered No. 6 Lindhurst, 6-2.