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Bulldogs hope to parlay spring soccer to championship-level play in the fall

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Woodburn senior forward Yahaira Rodriguez races upfield with Crescent Valleys Jada Foster for a potential scoring opportunity in the first half of the Bulldogs 2-1 loss to the Raiders.As the Woodburn girls soccer team was in the midst of its historic championship run in 2019, head coach Andrea Whiteman observed how her team rose to the moment when the team entered the state playoffs.

"When you think back to our 2019 season, every playoff game we got better," Whiteman said. "Everybody kept telling me, 'You guys are better than your last game.'"

When the Bulldogs entered elimination territory that season, the team reeled off four consecutive wins — including three shutouts — and outscored some of the best 4A teams in the state by a 7-1 margin.

Under the shortened 2020-21 fall season in March, Whiteman was looking for some way to capture that playoff intensity. With just a month's worth of games and no post season to look forward to, she wanted to find a way to simulate that playoff atmosphere.

When district athletic director Chad Waples approached her about the possibility of playing a 5A schedule to match the boys program, it was a no-brainer.

"I was like, 'Absolutely,'" Whiteman said. "I want to play those games that are tougher, that are playoff-like, because those are where you grow."

With traditional league schedules scrapped this season, the Woodburn girls were able to schedule all but one of their games against their former 5A rivals in the Mid-Willamette Conference. And through the first three weeks of the season, the Bulldogs have proved that they can go toe-to-toe with the best 5A teams in the state, parlaying their schedule in a 3-1-1 record so far.

With COVID-19 wiping out the traditional fall season and state playoffs, Whiteman's approach to soccer this year is to take advantage of every opportunity that comes her way. The Bulldogs may not be playing any single-elimination games, but the specter of the global pandemic that shut down high school athletics for a full calendar year looms as a potential threat to bring the season to a screeching halt at any time.

"Who knows when we'll have a game again," she said. "We could get shut down at any moment for two weeks. If we don't give everything we have now, then what are we waiting for?"

The Bulldogs have taken that mantra to heart this month, taking advantage of what time they have to enjoy the game they have exceled at in Whiteman's four-year tenure with the team. Given the uncertainty surrounding high school athletics, Whiteman has put little pressure on the team to come out this season, but has relied on the Bulldogs' competitive spirit to field another state championship-caliber program — if there were a title to play for — and prepare for hopefully a full fall season come September.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Woodburn freshman Elizabeth Valdez Vazquez set up a cross-field pass to sophomore teammate Luz Rojas for the Bulldogs lone goal of the game three minutes into the second half.PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Woodburn sophomore Crystal Garcia challenges Crescent Valleys Charolette Patel for possession in the first half of the contest."I think our goal has been whoever we can get out here for whatever games and practices we have, just give it everything you have and try to grow and learn as a player," Whiteman said.

Woodburn has risen to the challenge, most notably in the team's 2-1 loss to two-time defending 5A state champion Crescent Valley on March 16. The Bulldogs opened aggressively against the Raiders in a rare match between title teams, only to succumb to Crescent Valley's experience in the latter half of the first 40 minutes.

"I think we came out strong, then when they caught their momentum, kind of caught us by surprise a little bit. We had some small communication errors that broke down our defense," Whiteman said.

All-State senior forward Ana McClave took advantage of a communication breakdown by the Woodburn defense to put the Raiders on top 1-0 30 minutes into the contest. Shortly after, Bulldog keeper Litzy Gonzalez came out to the top of the box to clear the ball, only for McClave to field it at the 40-yard line and launch a shot over Gonzalez's head before she was able to return to the goal to take a 2-0 lead.

Heading into the second half with a large deficit, the Bulldogs redoubled their efforts. Three minutes into play, freshman Elizabeth Valdez Vazquez crossed a 40-yard pass from the side of the field to a streaking Luz Rojas, who caught the ball in stride and slammed it into the top right corner of the net to make it a 2-1 game.

The Bulldogs had several more chances to tie the game, but failed to capitalize on the opportunities. But the team successfully held off Crescent Valley for the remainder of the contest and came away from the loss with positive takeaways to learn from.

"When you're playing against a team that is smart and has experience, they will capitalize on every mistake," Whiteman said. "Even if they're not playing their best soccer, they will see those mistakes and score on them. It's hard to play a seasoned team, because when you do have those small mistakes, they pick them apart.

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Woodburn sophomore Luz Rojas scored the Bulldogs lone goal of the game, knocking in a shot from 15 yards out in the 43rd minute of the contest to cut the teams deficit to 2-1."We transitioned at half to a different formation, and I just think about years ago, that transition would not have been that seamless," she continued. "Where we've grown as a program, we've been able to make those smart moves like that that can get us a goal and get us closer to a win."

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