STOCKTON — Converted forward Hector Maldonado was moved to the attack third because of his powerful and accurate striking ability, but it was his defensive instincts and hustle that helped Weston Ranch earn an important three points Tuesday.
Maldonado’s penalty kick in the 28th minute teetered an evenly-matched affair in favor of Weston Ranch, which knocked off fellow postseason hopeful Lathrop, 1-0.
The win catapults the Cougars (6-4-1, 14-5-2 overall) to third place in the Valley Oak League with three matches remaining thanks to Kimball’s 2-1 upset of Sierra. Only the top three clubs advance to the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
Lathrop (3-5-3, 9-8-3) had done well to vault itself into contention having won three and tied one in its previous four matches, but Tuesday’s loss severely damages its chances.
“For the last five games Hector has turned it up to the next level,” said Weston Ranch coach Francisco Cisneros, adding that Maldonado has six goals and four assists in that stretch. “It took him a while to get used to playing forward but now he gets what he has to do and it has been huge for us.”
It was what he did to get the PK that made the difference.
Maldonado deflected two passes between Lathrop defenders near midfield and was able to control the second one enough to mount a one-man breakaway. He carried the ball into the 18-yard line and was immediately taken down from behind by Lathrop defender Jonathan Mendoza. Maldonado was awarded the penalty shot, and he blew it by keeper Eric DeLeon with a line drive to the lower-right corner.
“I think if it wasn’t for that foul I would have missed it. It was bouncing real ugly,” Maldonado said. “I had a chance to go one-on-one with the keeper and I wasn’t sure I could finish it.”
Up until that point, Lathrop had controlled the flow of play with ball possession and gave itself a few chances to take the first lead. Alex Barrera had the best look after Daniel Lizcano delivered him a perfect cross to the right post, but Barrera couldn’t get enough of his boot on it to make a proper strike.
Weston Ranch, meanwhile, relied on counterstrikes. Maldonado’s goal was a double whammy for the Spartans, as Mendoza’s dangerous tackle drew a red-card ejection.
“I was worried about that because they are a counterattacking team,” Lathrop coach Lenny Lial said. “We were working on possessing the ball starting with the defenders, but if those defenders make an errant pass (Weston Ranch) has the speed to counterattack and that’s exactly what happened.”
Weston Ranch returned the favor midway through the second half but was fortunate to still have the lead. Standout sweeper Victor Munoz dropped Drew Erwin just outside the penalty area for a red card, and defender Alex Gonzalez was also ejected for arguing with an official.
Felipe Gomez’s direct kick was saved by Cougar goalie Jose Avila, but Weston Ranchhad to play the final 20 minutes with just nine players to Lathrop’s 10.
Weston Ranch was still the more dominant team with the one-man disadvantage, and freshman forward Francisco Garcia had two good chances to provide insurance goals in the final 10 minutes.
“All season long these guys have been battling and overcoming adversity,” Cisneros said. “They knew this game meant a lot to us, but we’re going to need someone to step up against Manteca.”
No team in the VOL has a tougher closing stretch than Cisneros’ Cougars. They host their final regular-season contest against second-place Manteca on Thursday and will have to do so without two starting defenders. They then finish up with league-leading Oakdale and Sierra on the road.