Defense has been the cornerstone of success for the Santa Barbara High’s boys soccer team this season.
The Dons’ defense turned in another stellar performance on Wednesday, shutting down a potent Riverside Poly team 1-0 in a second-round match of the CIF Division 1 playoffs at Peabody Stadium. It was the first loss of the season by Poly, which finished the the year with a 20-1-7 record.
Santa Barbara (21-4-2) advances to a quarterfinal matchup at top-seeded San Clemente on Friday. The two teams met back in a December tournament in Santa Barbara and San Clemente won 3-1. They also played two years ago in the CIF Division 1 final and the Dons lost 2-1.
Pepe Barron, who had to be carried off the field with an injury during the Dons’ first-round win, returned to the lineup on Wednesday and scored the game-winning goal in the 43rd minute. He took a pass from Johnathan Mora on the left side of the penalty area and beat Poly goalkeeper Jesus Meza with a shot to the far post.
“Johnathan was running toward me and I checked in to him,” Barron said of the play. “I decided to peel off and once he gave me the ball I saw the defender closing in on me and I pretended I was going to hit with my right foot, but I ended up switching to my left and tucked it away.”
Santa Barbara coach Todd Heil said Barron was playing with a broken nose he suffered against Fountain Valley.
“He got cleared today,” Heil said. “We knew we’d put him out wide to get him away from contact and things like that. He has a great shot he had an opportunity and he nailed it.”
Santa Barbara’s defense made the goal stand up and posted its third straight shutout.
Mora spearheaded a solid defensive effort by the Santa Barbara midfielders. Time and again they stood up Poly’s attackers, cut off passing lanes on counterattacks and scrambled to make steals. If the Bears managed to get through, the back four cleaned it up. As a result, goalkeeper Elvis Mancilla didn’t have to make a save.
Heil lauded the play of Mora. “As an attacking center-mid, it’s easy to look at stats and see he hasn’t shown up very much. And you wonder, ‘Why is he an attacking center mid,’” Heil noted. “It’s the little things he does. It’s the little things that Johnathan has done all year long for us that makes him such a valuable part of our team.”
Mora was all over the field, chasing down Poly midfielders.
“We just kept busting our butts, getting back on defense, running to every player and making sure they didn’t get a touch forward,” Mora said of the defense. “I’m glad we did that.”
The Dons’ back line got a big boost with the return of center back and co-captain Peter Gamboa from an injury. He was especially important in the final minutes of the match as Riverside Poly stepped up its pressure to score an equalizing goal. Gamboa made a big play in the final seconds, clearing a loose ball in the box after and Poly free kick.
Santa Barbara came out with lots of energy and put Riverside Poly on the defensive for most of the first half. The Dons, however, misfired on some good looks at the goal.
Poly had an excellent chance to score in the 35th minute on a shot by Luis Garcia. But Mora covered for his goalkeeper and cleared Garcia’s shot off the goal-line.
After Barron scored the goal, the Dons got defensive. They disrupted Poly’s offensive flow by winning most of the 50-50 balls and calmly cleared anything dangerous in the box.
“There was something in us that we just wanted to get the balls,” Heil said of winning the 50-50 balls. “I think we were motivated. One thing we do have, and we’ve had all year, is heart, The kids have a lot of heart; they don’t quite. If it means winning 1-0, we’ll win 1-0.”