HOOD RIVER — The South Medford boys soccer team came into Tuesday’s Class 4A state semifinal match having allowed just two goals in three playoff games.
Their opponent, Hood River Valley, had already scored 11 goals in its three postseason outings.
Hoping to prove the theory that “the best defense is a good offense,” the Eagles entered the game aglow with confidence after an improbable overtime win at Jesuit on Nov. 8.
But the sixth-ranked Panthers made it clear that the best defense is still a good defense, shutting out the Eagles, 2-0, at Westside Field to advance to tonight’s championship game against Redmond.
“We just tried to stay organized in the back and frustrate them,” said senior sweeper Spencer Hunter, whose assist to Corey O'Neill gave South Medford a 1-0 lead just 12 minutes into the game.
Hunter said the Panthers (16-1-2 overall) were well aware of HRV playmakers Alexander Ponce and Jorge Hernandez, and said their gameplan was to eliminate the Eagles’ two biggest threats with smothering defense.
“We knew Alex was the key to their offense,” Hunter said, “and we weren’t going to let him beat us. Once we figured out how to stop him, we were able to do what we wanted to do.”
South Medford’s size and swarming defensive tactics took HRV (15-3 overall) out of its rhythm early. And although the Eagles were able to break through a few times in the second half, goalkeeper Mike Belzberg was up to the challenge, recording his second shutout of the playoffs.
“They are an extremely tough defensive team,” said HRV coach Doug Beveridge, whose Eagles landed in the state semis for the first time in their history.
“I really thought our offense would get something going in the second half, but their size seemed to affect our style of play.”
Despite falling behind for just the third time all season, the Eagles continued to battle deep into the second half, setting up three quality scoring opportunities — one by Obed Garduño that missed the left goal post by centimeters.
Hernandez and Ponce were also able to develop shots on goal, but one flew over the bar and the other was right at Belzberg.
However, just as the HRV offense was starting to click, South Medford put the game away in the 69th minute, when junior Shane Holiday poked an O’Neill cross over goalkeeper Julio Loza.
“I just timed it and knocked it over his head,” Holiday said. “They played a good game, but we were able to play our game. It wasn’t any one player either. We all just stepped it up today.”
Coming into the game, South Medford had allowed just eight goals all season. And with the 6-foot-4 Hunter running the show, the undersized Eagles were at the Panthers’ mercy.
Fellow defenders Kevin Potter, Andrew Egan and Eric Rubey also did their part in slowing the HRV offense, which was shut out on its home field for the first time in four years.
“Down only one goal, I wasn’t too worried,” Beveridge said. “We were figuring out how to crack their defense enough to get off a few shots. But give them credit. They played the type of game they needed to beat us.”
Beveridge said he thought South Medford was a strong team that deserved to be in the finals. But he also believes that if the
Eagles played the way they did against Jesuit in the quarterfinals, they would be facing Redmond for the third time this season.
“After playing both teams, I think Redmond is by far the better of the two,” he said. “Skill-wise, Redmond is far superior, and I would expect them to end their season undefeated.”
The state’s top-ranked team, which defeated HRV 5-1 and 3-0 this season, improved to 18-0 on the year with a 2-0 overtime win over Centennial on Tuesday.
Tonight’s championship will begin at 7:30 p.m. at Tigard High School, following the 4A girls championship game between Sheldon and Lincoln.
See the Nov. 19 edition for an HRV season recap.