Sierra was playing its seventh game in as many days Monday.
Just two days prior, the Timberwolves hosted their tournament to cap a non-league schedule that, for the most part, yielded unfavorable results.
Easy pickings for a red-hot Lathrop team, right?
Welcome to the Valley Oak League, where few outcomes are predictable.
Sierra surged past the Spartans 4-1 behind the outstanding play of freshman striker Kevin Mendiola, who finished with two goals and an assist in the VOL opener at Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium.
Cesar Martinez and Luis Mendoza also scored for Sierra (1-0, 5-7-1 overall). Ulysses Almanza tied it at 1-1 with a goal in the 14th minute for the visiting Spartans.
Lathrop (0-1, 7-5-1) checked in with a three-game winning streak that included an impressive 6-1 thumping of Sonora, which knocked off Sierra 3-2 two weeks ago.
“I thought we were prepared for this game,” first-year Lathrop coach Alfredo Reynaga said. “We won three in a row last week and had momentum. Traditionally, Sierra is a great team but we thought that the way we were playing that we could complete. They came out strong, so give them credit. We came out flat.”
Mendiola netted two highlight goals in the second half. His volley shot off David Lopez’s corner kick pushed Sierra ahead 2-1 in the opening minute of the first half.
Lathrop threatened to tie it back up in the 53rd minute just before Mendiola’s second brilliant goal. Defender Zimri Rico cleared it out of a crowd inside Sierra’s penalty box and delivered it to Mendiola, who had a wall of three Lathrop defenders behind him. With a deft touch he was able to volley it backward and through the Spartan defense from near the midfield stripe. Mendiola turned and bolted, and in flash he had only the Lathrop goalkeeper to beat.
“When you get that one-on-one chance you have to put that in,” Mendiola said. “You don’t get too many of those.”
It was the type of performance Sierra coach Joe Pires had been waiting to see out of the gifted, young forward.
“That was huge,” Pires said. “Kevin is one of our key players. Being a freshman there’s a lot of pressure on him. He hasn’t really opened up and broken though, but today was good game for him. We’re hoping this is the beginning of what we have been expecting.”
Sierra continued to dominate with the two-goal lead before Mendoza punctuated the final score in the 74th minute. The Timberwolves outshot Lathrop 11-2 in the second half and 18-8 overall.
While Mendiola’s goals were surely back breakers, Lathrop had a brush with misfortune on what could have been a pivotal moment in the contest. Down 2-1, 45th minute, Jose Castellanos volleyed in a would-be goal off a perfect cross from Almanza. The officials, however, wiped it from the scoreboard, declaring that Almanza was fouled as he dished it off from the right corner.
“I thought they were going to let play continue and we didn’t hear a whistle,” Reynaga said. “I was shocked. That was a big momentum breaker for us.”
It doesn’t get any easier for both teams Wednesday when they host the VOL’s top two teams from 2013, as Manteca visits Sierra while Lathrop entertains defending champion Oakdale.
“There are no gimmies in the VOL anymore,” Pires said.
Lathrop 3, Sierra 1
Alexis Palomares scored twice for Lathrop with Angel Vargas adding one for insurance. Anthony Garcia and Curtis Kremerskotter each chipped in an assist.