STOCKTON – She came. She saw. She conquered.
Worse yet for Valley Oak League and Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV opponents, she’s helped spawn two more in her likeness.
The legend of Isela Rivera grew a few feet taller with Saturday’s 3-2 victory over Vista del Lago in the D-IV section final. So tall, in fact, that the tiny East Union forward could probably hang the section’s commemorative blue banner on the wall of the Dalben Center herself.
Rivera scored two goals in an electric first half, and the top-seeded Lancers completed an unbeaten season with the program’s first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section championship.
To summit that mountain, East Union (19-0-1) had to navigate arguably the section’s toughest tournament and beat a former champion in No. 2 Vista del Lago.
The Eagles (13-2-3) featured five college-bound seniors, one Mexican national team player and two elastic goalies, but none of them compared to Rivera on Saturday afternoon.
The Lancers’ leading scorer signed off on her prep career with two trademark goals – a back-post header in the 12th minute and a spin-and-hit volley 21 minutes later.
Rivera finishes with 28 goals and 82 in a three-year varsity career. She averaged nearly three points per game this season.
“It feels unbelievable. It’s the first-time ever,” said Rivera, who will play soccer at San Jose State on scholarship. “This is my senior year and I’m leaving, but I’m leaving with our names on a plaque.”
Arianna Cardenas also scored for East Union, which led 3-1 at halftime and then held on for the final 40 minutes as the Eagles went into desperation mode.
The Lancers only outshot Vista by one in the first half, 7-6, but converted on 3-of-5 shots on frame.
“We talked about it before, with this group we have to take care of this game in the first half,” first-year coach Victor Polanco said.
Vista del Lago was at a disadvantage before it arrived at Spanos Stadium. The Eagles’ roster is lined with seniors, many of whom spent the 24 hours leading up to Saturday’s match traveling to and returning home from Disneyland.
Still, this was no Mickey Mouse victory for the Lancers, who danced beneath the scoreboard with the program’s first-ever blue banner.
Cries of “Ole! Ole! Ole!” filled the east end zone.
Four-year varsity player Meghan Wallace streamed tears following the final whistle. Goalie Taylor Gray, who assumed the starting job midway through the season, pumped her fist above the crowd.
And oft-injured senior captain Regina Dias, a spectator for most of the season because of a knee injury, walked arm-in-arm with freshman Jenna Zuniga (assist).
While the Lancers lose an undeniable star in Rivera and the steady on-field leadership of Wallace, Polanco returns a bevy of talent.
Two of those stars-in-waiting share something in common with East Union’s outgoing scoring champ: A last name.
Midfielders Isabella and Ilena Rivera were instrumental in Saturday’s victory, winning the first-half battle against Vista’s Janae Gonzalez (goal), a member of the Mexican under-17 national team, and senior Dali Alarian.
Ilena’s header past the defense in the 33rd minute released older sister Isela into space, where she would uncork a 20-yard volley past the hard-charging goalie to make it 2-0.
“She was winning every single head ball,” Isela said, “so as soon as she hit it, I knew I needed to get to it.”
Isabella set up the Lancers’ third goal with a pin-point free kick in the 39th minute. Her cross found the head of Cardenas at the near post, who rose above the defense to redirect the ball on goal.
The younger Riveras represent the future of the program. Isabella is a junior and one of the section’s top controlling midfielders. She’s unflappable and strong, despite giving away speed and size to most.
Ilena is cut from the same cloth as Isela – and many believe she could join her on the school’s Mount Rushmore one day. While that remains to be seen, one thing is certain: As she took the section banner in one hand, Isela passed the torch with the other.
“My sisters are taking the keys; taking the reins,” she said. “This group can do it again. We’re a young, solid group. They can make it just as far next year.”
Vista was the aggressor in the second half. Mary Meyer scored an unassisted goal in the 64th minute to make it 3-2.
The ball skipped by an East Union defender and Meyer won the foot race.
Gonzalez and Alarian created several more chances in the final minutes, including back-to-back corner kicks, but East Union’s patchwork back line rose to the occasion.
Gray had three saves.
East Union was unbeaten in 20 games; its only blemish a 1-1 tie with Oakdale.
In one season, Polanco pulled off a rare Triple Crown – the Lancers won Valley Oak League and section championships, and reached No. 1 in MaxPreps’ state rankings for a short stint.
“For me, this feels great,” Polanco said, “but all the credit goes to the girls. They put it all out there on the field. They (were) determined to win this game. This was our mission.”
STOCKTON – She came. She saw. She conquered.