Hillsboro boys soccer blanks Forest Grove in conference action

At the perfect time of the season, the Hillsboro boys soccer team is back to its winning ways.

The Spartans traveled to Forest Grove on Tuesday evening for a battle of two mid-pack Pacific Conference squads trying to move up the ladder late in the season. Thanks in part to two goals on set pieces, Hilhi toppled the Vikings 3-0 at Hendricks Stadium, edging into contention for one of the league’s automatic playoff berths.

So after dropping four consecutive games during a rough midseason stretch in which the team managed just two goals, the Spartans have gone unbeaten in their last four outings and have recorded 12 scores while allowing only two. The victory against the Vikings lifted Hilhi to 8-4-1 overall and 3-2-1 in the Pacific Conference, allowing the team to leapfrog Forest Grove for possession of fourth place with one game to play.

“It was a big game. We knew going in,” Spartans coach Tim Ellsworth said. “We’ve been talking, we needed to win that game to move ahead of them in the league standings and push ourselves into contention for the top four, so big win for us.

“Our guys came in pretty focused and ready and came out hard, ready to play.”

A playmaker all season for the Spartans, Abran Serrano Garcia came up big for the away side to open the scoring. About three quarters of the way into the first half, the Spartans earned a free kick along the left sideline. Serrano Garcia stepped up to take the kick, and he lofted a perfect ball from about 35 yards out.

“I hit it really well and it went really high, and the keeper misjudged it and it ended up going into the top right corner,” Serrano Garcia said about the goal, his eighth of the season.

That strike gave the Spartans the advantage they needed, but they were not content with just one score. Hilhi earned its second tally on some nice teamwork in about the 45th minute. Playing out wide, Danny Tapia fed the ball to Diego Canastuj-Lopez, who then got around Vikings goalkeeper Ricardo Torres and found Miguel Tena for an easy finish.

“(He) could have scored himself but unselfishly laid it across, and Miguel just tapped it in,” Ellsworth noted about the assist from Canastuj-Lopez.

Hilhi tacked on another insurance goal in about the 60th minute. Serrano Garcia did not score it himself, but he did lay the groundwork. He sent a corner kick toward the Viking goal and a Forest Grove player booted it into the net for an own goal.

In the Spartans’ net, Phoenix Baltrus made some solid saves to keep the Vikings off the board, and he picked up the team’s seventh shutout of the year.

As for the late-season turnaround, Serrano Garcia attributed it partly to team captains Tyler Hoiem, Abraham Salcedo and Aaron Barber-Axhelm setting the tone, and he also traced it back to the team’s game against McMinnville on Oct. 14. The Spartans and Grizzlies tied the match at 2-2 — with Hilhi getting the final goal of the match with less than a minute to play — but Serrano Garcia said the squad was dangerous in creating chances despite allowing a couple of mistakes.

“Ever since then we’ve been playing well,” he said.

Hillsboro’s recent run has come after the squad started conference play with losses to Century and Tualatin. But with each result, the Spartans have been slowly climbing up the standings.

Ellsworth credited the recent play to a team reapplying itself.

“I think mentally we just finally refocused, got ourselves back towards a common goal,” Ellsworth said. “It’s hard to put my finger on what happened for that week and a half where we just kind of fell apart. After the Sherwood loss (on Oct. 5), we’ve come back together now and have been playing good soccer.”

Whatever the cause of the return to form, it definitely has been working for the Spartans. They rounded out league play on Thursday by hosting Newberg (results not available at press deadline). Another victory would have secured a top-four finish and one of the league’s four automatic playoff berths, allowing Hilhi to avoid a play-in game next week.

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