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Timberwolves knock off El Capitan despite 2 red cards
El Capitan-Sierra boys soccer
Juan Lara (4) heads toward the Sierra sideline to celebrate his late go-ahead goal in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoff opener against visiting El Capitan of Merced on Friday. - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO/The Bulletin

Even down a man, Sierra’s confidence never wavered in its Sac-Joaquin Section Division III opener against 12th-seeded El Capitan on Thursday.

The No. 5 Timberwolves had two players earn red-card ejections, while one was sent off from the visiting Gauchos of Merced.

“We knew that with the players we have we were going to win in the beginning, but it took some heart to do it,” Sierra senior Juan Lara said.

It also took two late goals from unlikely sources.

Lara, an anchor for the defense as its sweeper, put Sierra ahead with a header, and late substitute Adrian Ramirez netted the insurance goal in the final minute as the Timberwolves advance with a 2-0 victory. They’ll get to host again thanks to Christian Brothers’ upset of No. 4-seeded Lincoln of Placer County.

“We have a really good group of guys,” Sierra coach Joe Pires said. “We have some good players and they kept their composure. We were dominating the game and playing a lot on their half, we were just missing opportunities. We just kept digging deeper and deeper.”

Sierra outshot El Capitan 11-3 (7-1 on goal), but it was scoreless for most of the match. Just moments before the halftime whistle, a player on each team ejected for a brief scuffle after they got tangled up while battling for possession. The Timberwolves (16-3-2) lost another player to a double-yellow, forcing them to compete without two of their top attacking players.

They remained aggressive, as the extra space seemed to favor Sierra even it had a disadvantage in numbers.

“We did not want this team to control the ball because they’re very good passers,” Pires said. “We wanted to put pressure and be aggressive early to get them off of their game, and it worked.”

Leave it up to a defender — and senior captain — to break the ice for Sierra. He was sent to the attacking third for a set piece taken by Emmanuel Ruiz, who lofted his free kick perfectly over the defense. Lara sneaked behind the back line and connected with a leaping header that was placed well beyond the reach of El Cap goalkeeper Andrew Koenig.

“Felt like it was my responsibility,” Lara said. “That cross was meant for me — beautiful ball from Emmanuel. Took some heart to get to the end of that, but I knew we were going to get it.”

The Gauchos (8-4-3) were on their heels for the rest of the game. Ramirez eventually checked in for striker Emiliano Sanchez, and it didn’t take long for him leave his mark on the game.

Sierra had another set piece, this one delivered by Lara from near midfield. His initial ball in was deflected by a headed attempt from Ramirez and headed wide of the goal. The hustle of midfielder A.J. Paz helped keep the play alive and, ultimately, led to the back-breaking goal.

Paz outraced Koenig to the loose ball and centered it to Ramirez, who avoided a tackle on the 6-yard line before poking it into the open net.

“It all comes down to be there at the right time,” Ramirez said. “It was a little bit nerve-wracking coming in knowing that I was not going to be there super long, but it was good to put away the last goal to help move the team on to the next round.”

Sierra will host No. 13 Christian Brothers (8-6-4) of Sacramento next Tuesday in the quarterfinal round. The Falcons stunned Lincoln on Thursday, 2-1. The Timberwolves will have to play without two key starters, however.

“We’re happy to be in the final eight but we’re not done yet,” Lara said. “We have some incredible players here, and we’ll keep pushing.”