STOCKTON — Esteban Paramo stepped to the penalty stripe with a plan of action, each step carefully thought out.
Step No. 1: Stay calm. Breath.
Step No. 2: Aim for the left post and trust your talent.
And lastly, Step No. 3: Make history.
The Weston Ranch sophomore accomplished all three, slipping the game-winning penalty kick past Woodland’s Esteban Rodriguez and securing the Cougars’ berth in Saturday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship game.
For the second straight game, Weston Ranch won in a penalty kick shootout after finishing regulation and two 10-minute overtime periods deadlocked at 1-all.
The teams traded successful shots for six rounds when Woodland’s Jose Guevara missed badly over the crossbar, opening the door for Paramo and the Cougars.
Paramo’s shot, a low-lining blast to the left panel, made it 7-6.
The second-year varsity player was mobbed by a crowd of players and fans. He let the celebration wash over him, realizing just how far this program has come under second-year coach Francisco Cisneros.
“I was on varsity last year. We had a good team, but didn’t do much,” Paramo said. “This team, we’ve worked hard and look ... look where it’s led us.”
Hector Maldonado, Arthur Garcia, Kevin Medina, Joseph Mayorca, Francisco Garcia and Alex Gonzalez converted penalty kicks for the top-seeded Cougars (17-5-4), who will play Liberty Ranch on Saturday for the school’s first-ever section title. The game will be played at Stagg High at noon.
Maldonado returned from a one-game suspension to net the Cougars’ only goal in regulation. In a bit foreshadowing, it came on a penalty kick in the 42nd minute.
“It’s a great win. We’re making history at this school,” Maldonado said, “and we hope to take our division.”
Weston Ranch hasn’t lost in more than a month — a string of decisions that include draws with Oakdale and Sierra, and victories over playoff teams Manteca (Division III), Natomas and Woodland.
But it hasn’t been easy.
On Wednesday, the Cougars found themselves in an early hole. Juan Bravo scored in the game’s first 11 seconds, taking advantage of a miscue by the Weston Ranch defense at the starting whistle.
The ball was pushed forward by Woodland and skipped past sweeper Victor Munoz with an awkward bounce. Bravo raced onto the ball and finished his 1-on-1 with Jose Avila with a left-footed rip to the far post.
Woodland wouldn’t threaten the rest of the half. The Wolves relied on their defense to protect the one-goal lead.
“It was a physical mistake and they capitalized on it,” Cisneros said. “We responded and created opportunities. I told them at halftime that we’ve been there before. We dominated the first half and I told them to have confidence we’d find that tying goal.”
The Cougars attacked with sophomore Kevin Medina, Maldonado and Garcia, whose talent in the offensive third belies his small stature.
Eventually, Woodland’s defense buckled. Garcia was pulled down in the penalty box just two minutes into the second half. Maldonado’s PK made it 1-1.
The game would remain that way through regulation and overtime, but not without a few close chances by Garcia.
He tried to flip a shot over Rodriguez in the 49th minute, but had it batted away.
Later, Garcia had a shot from the distance pushed wide of the post. On the ensuing corner kick, the ball deflected out to Garcia near the 18. His volley smacked off the outside of the side post.
“Today, he created a lot of chances but didn’t capitalize,” Cisneros said. “I think he was feeling the pressure.”
Weston Ranch outshot Woodland and its chip-and-run offense, 19-12.
The Cougars’ marksmanship was dead-on in the shootout. Paramo said the team rehearses PKs in practice and drew on that experience on Wednesday.
Weston Ranch found success at the left post. Six of the seven shots were to the left. Only Maldonado — the first shooter — went right.
“We got a great goalie and great shooters,” Maldonado said. “We have everything it takes.”
Either way, history will be made on Saturday in the Division IV championship. Both Weston Ranch and Liberty Ranch are gunning for their first boys soccer titles. Liberty Ranch only has one section banner, a girls soccer championship.
“We’ve been on an unbelievable run,” Cisneros said. “This last month, we haven’t lost a game. They’ve responded when their backs were against the wall and they keep finding ways to come back.”