RIPON — Linden got its revenge Thursday night.
“Couldn’t have come at a better time,” Lions forward Josef Polk said.
The smallest, yet fastest, player on the field scored twice at Stouffer Field, spearheading fifth-seeded Linden’s 3-2 come-from-behind victory over No. 4 Ripon in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V playoffs.
Ulisis Lara netted the go-ahead goal on a controversial penalty kick in the 62nd minute. Victor de la O and Thomas Sidtikun scored for Ripon (12-9-1), which was 6-0-1 on its home turf heading into the postseason.
It was on this field back on Sept. 17 where the Indians trounced Linden (13-11-2) by a 4-1 margin in a nonleague contest. Polk, no taller than 5-foot-5 with cleats on, insists the Lions are a different team now. They won seven of their last eight regular-season games en route to a runner-up finish in the Mother Lode League.
“We knew we had to step it up,” Polk said. “(Ripon) played a good game the last time we were here but we felt like we didn’t show our true potential. I think tonight we did.”
Linden dominated from start to finish, even while down 2-0 in the first half. Spirits were lifted on the visitors sideline when the ultra-quick Polk bursted past the Ripon defense following a throw-in to cut the deficit in half in the 38th minute.
“That goal gave them the peace of mind knowing that they’re still in this,” Ripon coach Jamie DeBruyn said. “They came out of half and dominated the majority of that second half.”
Polk had a breakaway thwarted by Ripon defender Emmanuel Sanchez after dribbling past goalie Johnathan Soto (four saves) in the first minute of the second half. Jaime Cardona then hit one off the crossbar from long range moments later, and Kenneth Watkins IV just missed one wide on an open look in the 46th minute.
The tide completely turned in Linden’s favor when Polk knotted the score in the 55th minute. He was set up nicely by Watkins, who received a pass from Fernando Osequera and delivered the well-placed through ball ahead to Polk.
It wasn’t until 26 minutes in that Ripon attempted its first shot of the half, but Noah Lehmann’s shot from distance was launched directly to Linden keeper Jozeph Cordeiro (three saves).
The Lions were already ahead 3-2 by that point. They were awarded the PK when a sideline official declared that Ripon defender Brandon Scott deflected a Linden shot with his hand.
“I didn’t see (the handball),” DeBruyn said. “I saw the ball take a weird bounce but more off a shoulder or a head. I thought he was calling a corner kick after Soto pushed it out.”
DeBruyn didn’t blame the officials for the loss, however. Linden outshot his Indians 17-6 and were well in control in the second half.
Ripon managed to convert goals on its first two shot attempts of the match. Shortly after an indirect kick, de la O crushed a half-volley by Cordeiro after a Linden defender tried to clear it out of the penalty area in the 20th minute. And in the 30th minute, de la O faked a direct kick, and Sidtikun followed with an impressive blast from 27 yards out.
“We were losing balls in the air and the continuous passing was terrible,” DeBruyn said. “The two goals we had were basically off set pieces. Beautiful goals, but there was no buildup to them. It just seemed like it was disjointed for the majority of the game.”
Linden takes its hot streak to Sacramento next Wednesday to take on top-seeded Capital Christian (16-3), a 5-1 winner over Bear River (8-10-1) on Thursday.
For Ripon, Thursday’s loss — the third in four games — piled on to a sour end of what started out as a season of promise. After winning their first five Trans-Valley League games, the Indians lost to Riverbank and Escalon on back-to-back outings and came up short in their defense of the title.
“In the last part of the season we got hit by the injury bug and we just haven’t bounced back from that,” DeBruyn said.