The No. 8 Gervais boys soccer team is back on top after defeating the Taft Tigers on Saturday to claim their second consecutive conference championship.
The Cougars (9-6-1, 6-5-1 Special District 2) entered the the beginning of the week as the third seeded team in the conference playoffs and a longshot to defend their league title after an up-and-down season.
But back-to-back exciting victories over the No. 7 Western Mennonite Pioneers (9-5-2, 6-4-2 SD2) and the No. 2 Tigers (12-2-2, 9-1-2 SD2) proved that the road through the district still runs through Gervais High School.
"We're a great team," head coach J.J. Flores said after the win. "We can only beat ourselves."
Gervais struggled for consistency through much of the regular season and was never able to capture the same magic as last year's league title team.
But Flores knew the Cougars had it in them. Gervais had the ability to compete against any team in the state, but time and time again, kept making mistakes in key situations that led to losses.
"The boys all season, most of the time when we started losing, it was because of simple errors," Flores said. "We beat ourselves."
The Cougars finally clicked in the last week of the regular season, beating Western Mennonite and drawing against Dayton to head into the league playoffs on a high note.
Gervais drew the Pioneers again on Oct. 25 in the league semifinals hosted at Salem Academy High School.
After playing nearly two hours of soccer and unable to break a 1-1 draw, the game went to penalty kicks to determine the winner, where Gervais senior Andy Morales scored the game-winning PK to deliver a third victory this season over the Pioneers and a rematch with Taft for the league title.
Teammates Jafeth Casas, Jonathan Bartolo and Jesus Torres also scored PKs, sending the Cougars back to the district championship in a rematch of last year's finals, where they beat Taft 2-1 to earn the 2016 league title.
But to get there, the Cougars had to get past a Western Mennonite team that was looking to avenge a pair of one-goal losses to Gervais in the regular season. The Pioneers were the first to score, getting the upper hand midway through the first half on a goal that put them up 1-0.
The Cougars had trouble matching the Pioneers' speed on the turf surface of Salem Academy, but freshman Alan Oljeda struck gold early in the second half.
The midfielder took a breakaway ball down the left side of the field, negotiated past a Pioneer defender and shot the ball past the encroaching keeper from the deep corner of the box to tie the game at 1-1.
The Cougars had trouble finishing scoring opportunities without high-scoring forward Kevin Flores, who was out for the game. But the team's defense came through, holding the Pioneers scoreless in the second half and both extra periods.
When the game went to penalty kicks, Casas, Bartolo and Torres connected on the Cougars' first three attempts. Team captain Davis Morales missed on the Cougars' fourth attempt, leaving the door open for the Pioneers to tie it up and send the game to another set of penalty kicks.
But Andy Morales emphatically denied the Pioneers the chance when his attempt found the back of the net, putting the Cougars into the championship game against the Tigers.
Despite losing both games to the Tigers in the regular season, the big win over Western Mennonite gave Gervais all the confidence they needed in the league title game.
With Kevin Flores back in the lineup, Gervais quickly took the lead over the Tigers, taking a corner kick in the opening two minutes that the sophomore placed in the back of the net to put his team up 1-0.
Taft returned the favor in the 20th minute, but the Cougars retook the lead in the second half when Andy Morales found Osvaldo Orozco on a free kick. Orozco tapped it in for his first goal of the season, which turned out to be the game-winner.
Casas added an insurance goal at the end of the game to bring the contest to its final margin of victory.
With the state playoffs upon them, the Cougars will host the No. 10 Riverdale Mavericks (6-4-2, 6-1-1 SD1) on Wednesday at 3 p.m.
"They like to play from the back," Coach Flores said. "They have a couple individual players who play very well in open space. They have a winger, a good attacking midfielder and a good holding midfielder. You give those guys space, and they can be dangerous."
The Cougars beat the Mavericks 3-2 in a non-conference game at the beginning of the season, and Coach Flores thinks the Cougars have the edge to do so again this week.
"As a team, line by line, I feel like we're a better team," he said.
A win for Gervais would mean a return to the quarterfinals where they will play either Taft or the Nyssa Bulldogs on Friday.