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Crusaders come out strong in second half, finish great regular season undefeated

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - The Jesuit boys soccer team won the Metro League championship with a big win over Sunset.

The de facto Metro League boys' soccer championship deserves a rematch down the line.

It was clear through 80 minutes of match play that Jesuit and Sunset will be two of the final teams standing when the Class 6A postseason ramps up. Each program is stacked with club level skill in the midfield and the final third of the pitch to go along with confrontational defenses and goalies. The quality of play from each side was superb. The caliber of both long-standing powers is compelling come playoff time.

Ultimately, in an action-packed, nip-and-tuck thriller, it was the defending champs who prevailed.

Seven minutes into the second half, Jesuit junior Aidan Azavedo found senior Austin Rodriguez for a header goal to go up 1-0, a lead that held up the rest of the way. The Crusaders, who hadn't won a Metro crown in two years, clinched the conference outright with the 1-0 win over second-place Sunset on Oct. 24 at Sunset High School.

"This game was big," Azavedo said. "Sunset and Jesuit have always had a great rivalry. We have a lot of respect for Sunset. They're a great team, a great school. They've always wanted to come out and compete. They gave us a run for our money tonight. It's important we have these types of games because they're great matches."

"I respect every single player on that team," Jesuit senior forward Remington Grayson said. "They're fantastic. When we play them, it shows us what we need to work on as a whole group and individually. There were times where we didn't transition quickly enough. We had a lot of opportunities that we missed today, so we need to work on our shots."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior Ellis Harwood dribbles the ball up the field against Jesuit.

The regular season finale was an appetizing playoff precursor between two clubs that don't necessarily like each other but are heedful of one another. Both teams are loaded with stars who showed off what makes them great. Sunset senior midfielder Ellis Harwood threaded a seeing ey lead pass ahead to senior forward Julien Thuillier who cut the ball from left to right and got off a pass to Pierce Walker before getting knocked to the turf. The subsequent rolling shot went just left of the frame. Harwood had a shot on goal himself. Sunset defender Jacob Falk held down the Apollo backline along with goalie Ajax Zappitello while Jesuit's towering defender Floor Van Hameren and goalie Nolan Gregg helped keep Thuillier and Ian Robb off the board in a 0-0 first half.

"I think we played great," Harwood said. "Every time we play, we keep getting better. Jesuit's pressure and their ability to be there kind of changed the game. But I'm proud of my boys. I still love what we do and how we play."

The early minutes of the second half proved crucial. One could sense the tide changing toward Jesuit who came out of the halftime break on the attack. And after an Apollo clear attempt was intercepted and kicked to Azavedo, the junior midfielder found Rodriguez who put his head on the ball and popped it home to go up 1-0 with 33 minutes to go.

"Whenever we get that first goal, the momentum keeps building, it fires us up," Grayson said. "We kept working, kept pushing, knowing we had the advantage. We couldn't lose that. We were going for the Metro title. That was big for us. We're passionate about the game."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit senior forward Austin Rodriguez scored the go-ahead and eventual game-winner against Sunset.

Jesuit's effort on the defensive end, especially after the Crusaders scored, can't be overlooked. Van Hameren is built like a power forward, but he's physical and fast as well and capable of marking up a super-skilled savant such as Thuillier. Azavedo, Nathan Gewant and Charlie Wallace also helped keep the always explosive Apollos off the board. Jesuit, despite losing 11 seniors off last year's state title team, still has goal scorers up top such as Grayson and midfielders who bring everything together in Azavedo. Factor in a penny-pinching backline and a goalie in Gregg who is humble, but ultra-confident and Jesuit is ready for the second season.

"Our defense is the cherry on top," Azavedo said. "We did the nitty, gritty work, especially winning the balls in the (backline). Our defense has been absolutely amazing this season, clearing balls, staying steady. We've only allowed five goals all year."

Jesuit not only wrapped up Metro, completing an unscathed campaign with a 12-0-2 record, but it secured the top seed in the 6A power rankings. The Crusaders, should they advance through the 6A field, will have homefield advantage through the semifinals. It's a far cry from the 12th seed Jesuit was saddled with last year and it will make for a much more comfortable path back to Hillsboro Stadium, the site of the 6A state title game.

"It means everything to us," Grayson said. "I'm excited to see where we're going to go. I think we're going to go far. We might not be the most technical team, but we have the mentality that no other team has, we work really hard to win every single game."

Sunset (9-4-1 overall), meanwhile, is seventh in the 6A power rankings. The Apollos are positioned on the other side of the bracket as Jesuit, with possible matchups against Clackamas and Reynolds in the second and third rounds. Handle the Eastside clubs and a second square off with Jesuit with a chance to win it all isn't out of the question. Sunset is that good after a great regular season.

"It could be a totally different game," Harwood said. "We still have three weeks to prepare. We'll see (Jesuit) again for sure if we keep doing what we're doing."

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset junior forward Pierce Walker tries to control the ball in the final third of the field against Jesuit.

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