Erick Noriega had one last chance to score with a free kick in Sierra’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoff game with visiting Galt on Wednesday.
A dangerous goal scorer from any distance inside the midline, Noriega launched a rocket that had the movement to fool most keepers.
Not Galt’s Andrew Rudnick.
Rudnick slapped the ball away with two hands as he rammed into the left post, and just seconds later he joined the rest of the Warriors in celebration of their 2-0 victory.
It was a fitting way for the game to end for the third-seeded Timberwolves (13-4-5), who outshot Galt 17-11 but came up empty on many well-orchestrated opportunities. The seventh-seeded Warriors (17-3-1) — who got past two league champions to get to Saturday’s final-round contest — scored both goals in the final six-plus minutes.
They will face No. 6 River Valley, which stunned No. 2 Rio American 1-1 (5-4 PKs) in its semifinal, Saturday at Lincoln High in Stockton or Cosumnes Oaks is Elk Grove.
“We dominated most of the game,” Noriega said. “We had more chances than them, we just didn’t have the lucky bounces, I guess, and they did. I gotta give it to their keeper though; he did a heck of a job this game.”
Rudnick came up with five saves and thwarted another set-piece attempt from Noriega in the first half. He also got some help from the crossbar, which got in the way of two potential goals for Sierra
Galt avenged its loss to Sierra from Aug. 25, dropping a competitive 3-2 match during the Pitman Tournament. In Wednesday’s contest, Javi Munoz netted his team-high 23rd goal on the season with a head shot off freshman Issac Martinez’s corner-kick cross in the 74th minute. Then in the 79th, Fernando Chavez cleaned up Freddy Gonzalez’s initial shot on a direct kick that was deflected by Sierra goalie Manuel Garcia (3 saves).
“We knew from previous years that they’ve always had a pretty strong team with great coaches, and the first time we played them it was just like this — right down to the wire,” Galt coach Rue Rodriguez said. “At the end of the day we finished in the end. Not to take anything away from them, they are a good team, and they gave us a run for our money. They had opportunities that they didn’t put away, and luckily we were able to get ours in at the end.”
From start to finish, it was a well-played match in which both sides played to their strengths. Sierra controlled possession and the pace, building up attacking runs with precision passing. Galt, held without a shot until the 17th minute, was most dangerous using its speed on counterattacks and height on long throw-ins and set pieces.
“It wasn’t like they developed something … if they were going to win it was going to be by a throw-in or a free kick, and that’s what happened,” said Sierra co-head coach Jose Montes. “Their strength is in the air because they have some height. We knew we’d lose in the air and that’s why we tried keeping the ball on the ground.
“We don’t have size to match theirs, but we can’t make excuses because we played beautiful soccer and had chances.”
Sierra’s seniors understandably took the loss hard. Noriega, for one, just wrapped up his fourth season on the varsity squad. He was part of two VOL championship teams and played in four SJS postseason tournaments. The Timberwolves made three semifinal appearances during that stretch, losing each time.
“I’ve been to sections all four years; I know what it feels like (to lose),” Noriega said. “Some of these (younger) kids didn’t know what it feels like until now. When it happens your senior year it really hurts.”
Added Montes: “We had a good group of kids. Some of them won two VOL titles, and it’s hard to do that. A lot of people didn’t think we could do it because we lost so many good players (to graduation). They tasted it, that’s why it hurts them so badly because they thought this was the year they were going to go all the way.”