By JONAMAR JACINTO
There is no moment too big for 4-foot, 8-inch Ilena Rivera, East Union’s diminutive goal-scoring phenom and Manteca Bulletin All-Area Girls Soccer MVP.
She netted 40 goals in her sensational sophomore season, but it’s not the quantity that makes Rivera stand out. Simply put, when the Lancers needed goals, she provided.
That was the case in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship game against arch-nemesis Manteca. Scoring chances were few and far between in the early stages of the match, as both squads struggled to get rolling on the offensive end.
Rivera changed the game with goals on set pieces in the 29th and 33rd minutes. East Union’s air-tight defense — which gave up just five goals all season — took it from there, and in the end the Lancers celebrated their second straight section championship and a perfect 21-0 finish.
“Practice,” Rivera said. “I practice on set pieces a lot and I work a lot on heading too because I’m only 4-8. You have to time it right to get over them. I just have to keep working on getting better.”
Rivera was clutch all season, and she did it against playoff-caliber teams.
Oakdale threatened to derail the Lancers’ hopes of a perfect season but was thwarted by two goals from Rivera in a 3-2 final. Against Kimball, she scored one and assisted another in a 2-0 victory. Two days later Rivera recorded her fifth hat trick of the season in a 3-0 triumph over Central Catholic.
She also shined against in-town rivals. She was in on every scoring play in two matches against Sierra, scoring five goals and assisting another in 4-0 and 2-0 victories. And in the regular-season finale, she helped East Union cap an unblemished14-0 run in the Valley Oak League by netting the game’s only goal against Manteca, which had otherwise outplayed the Lancers.
East Union continued to dominate in the postseason. The top-seeded team in the Division III bracket rolled past Central Valley (2-0) and Benicia (4-0) before getting third shots at league foes Oakdale and Manteca in the final two contests.
Finishing undefeated was much tougher than East Union made it look at times.
“It was a struggle,” Rivera said. “It’s hard to win back-to-back titles and we had a couple tough games that we needed to regroup from as a team. After we barely beat Oakdale earlier in the season it tore the team apart a little bit.
“We just had to put it in our head that we want to be section champs again and after that we came out strong. Every game after that we played with the mentality that we’re going to be section champs.”
Rivera has yet to experience defeat as a Lancer.
Next year, she’ll have to experience life on the pitch without at least one of her two elder sisters at her side. Ilena is the youngest of the talented Rivera trio that includes Isela and Isabella, both bound for CSU Stanislaus. Together, they led the Lancers to their first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section championship in 2014 and, despite losing scoring phenom Isela to graduation, they repeated this past spring. They’ll reunite down the road, as Ilena has already committed to CSU Stanislaus.
“It was very special,” Ilena Rivera said. “It’s very rare that you get to see three sisters play with each other. It will be very different because the connection we have is so close and everything we do on the field just clicks.”
East Union should still be a contender next despite Isabella Rivera and six other seniors. Ilena has a well-established connection with fellow sophomore Jenna Zuniga, an All-Area midfielder, and versatile junior Arianna Cardenas, both of whom she has played with since their days in the youth circuit. Also returning are All-Area selections Isabella Cardenas, Mariah Jeffrey and Clarissa Lecce, another smallish but dynamic forward who was East Union’s second-leading scorer (11 goals) as a freshman.
“Of course there is pressure,” Rivera said. “Everyone wants to be the team that says, ‘We beat them and their perfect record.’
“Obviously, everybody wants to win and be the section champions. I think we can do it again the next two years with the team we have.”