In surely the biggest play of his career so far, Hood River Valley High School goalie Marco Cuevas stood face-to-face with Wilsonville Wildcat Garrett Bonell, with just 11 meters of frozen field between them.
Bonell wasted little time getting the ball set, taking three steps back and focusing intently on the goal. The sizable home crowd at HRV’s Henderson Community Stadium, already riled after an arguable foul call with nine seconds remaining in the first half prompted the penalty kick, went wild as the two players, silhouetted by the stadium lights, simultaneously took deep breaths and exhaled bright white steam clouds onto the frigid night air.
Cuevas took three quick hops to get his timing in sync with Bonell’s approaching shot, which came in hard, low and to the right.
“It was just instinct,” Cuevas said from the sidelines after the game, his voice muted by the jubilance of his teammates celebrating the 2-0 win. “I didn’t have much time to think about it. I just chose that side and hoped for the best, and that’s what happened. I was definitely happy once the half was over.”
Cuevas dove toward the left post and deflected the ball with his knees just inches in front of the goal line. After a few tense seconds of scrambling for the rebound in the midst of several other players, Cuevas cradled the ball tightly as the final few seconds of the half expired.
The save maintained the Eagles’ 1-0 lead at halftime of Tuesday’s 5A state semifinal matchup between the No. 2 ranked Eagles and the No. 3 ranked Wildcats. HRV went on to add a security goal in the second half, at the 14-minute mark, to secure the win and its second-straight trip to the state championship.
Simultaneously that night an even closer battle was underway in Bend, where No. 1 Summit hosted Woodburn in the other 5A state semifinal match. No. 4 seeded Woodburn came away with a 2-1 win in overtime to upset the defending state champions and earn a return trip to the state finals.
HRV and Woodburn will face off Saturday, 1 p.m. at Hillsboro Stadium for what promises to be a thrilling showdown between two teams that have developed a ferocious rivalry in recent years. Last season the Eagles defeated Woodburn, who was at the time the two-time defending state champion — in overtime of the semifinals, on Woodburn’s sold-out home field. The season prior, a similar semi-final ended with Woodburn winning 2-1 in a battle that nearly turned into a brawl in the final minutes.
“I kind of want to play Summit, to get back at them for last year,” senior defensive captain Uriel Torres said after Tuesdays game, before knowing which team HRV would be facing Saturday. “We got back at Woodburn already. It doesn’t really matter though, we’re going to give it everything we have whoever we play.”
Torres anchored a rock-solid defensive line Tuesday that kept Wilsonville’s up-front players largely in check and forced much of the action to the midfield or HRV’s offensive third.
“We played as a team the whole game,” he said. “We knew it was going to be a tough game, so we went in with everything we had. His (Cuevas) save on the penalty kick was very important. We went into the half with our heads up, and theirs were down. We knew we just had to keep challenging and pushing them and we would have it.”
Although HRV didn’t score until 33 minutes into the first half, off a penalty kick setup with a drive into the box by Noe Magana and taken by Alex Gutierrez, the Eagles were clearly the dominant team. Wilsonville stacked their defense to stymie the Eagles’ fast-break attack and plugged the middle to limit clean shots at the goal. Gutierrez and Gio Magana led the first half attack with several shots-on-goal, but Wilsonville goalie Quinn Everts had several saves to keep HRV from running up the score.
“It was really neat to see how Marco (Cuevas) reacted and what he said to the team at halftime,” Coach Jaime Rivera said. “After everyone calmed down, he was the one who said, ‘you know what, we need to keep playing like the score is zero to zero.’ And that’s the mentality they had when they went back out on the field.”
Senior Danny Romero had the standout performance of the half for HRV from the field, while Cuevas added a pair of key saves to keep the shutout going. In his first goal of the season, junior defender Mario Sandoval scored with 14 minutes remaining off a set play down the left wing. Sandoval kicked a long, arching cross to the far post toward Romero, who, in a stretched-out diving header attempt, shielded Everts from making the save and the ball bounced into the corner of the net.
Following the win, Rivera rallied the team together at midfield for a debriefing.
“This is it boys, one more to go,” he said. “For the next four days, it’s HRV soccer all the way. Let’s go get one more boys.”
To get adjusted to the turf field they’ll play on Saturday at Hillsboro stadium, the team had planned on traveling to Portland for practice Thursday and Friday afternoons. Thursday’s weather nixed that, however, and the team ended up working-out in the gymnasium with the hopes of having at least Friday to practice on turf. On the bright side, the weather forecast looks sunny (but cold) for Saturday’s game.
“We’ve been keeping an eye on them (Woodburn) all season,” Rivera said. “They’re a strong team. They’re fast and strong and have one very key player who is going to be very important for us to shut down.” That key player is senior Dagoberto Diaz, who scored both goals for his team in last week’s win over Summit. “Beyond shutting him down, we need to just keep playing team ball like we have been.
“We knew from the beginning that we had what it takes to get here. It was just a matter of breaking it all down into baby steps and taking it one game at a time.”