Berths into the 3A state boys soccer tournament have come regularly for Sparks. Wins at the tourney, however, have been much more elusive.
The Railroaders (24-2-1) fell in the state semifinals three straight years before finally getting off the schnide on Friday with a 4-1 win over Chaparral (17-9-1) at Cimarron-Memorial Park in Las Vegas.
One of the state semifinal losses came to the same Chaparral team, 2-0, in 2014. The other two were to SECTA.
“As a coach, it’s hard to always just make it this far and get bounced in the first game,” Sparks coach Jose Espana said. “This (senior) group of individuals has lost the last three. This senior class, especially the ones that have played with us the last three years, they’ve lost. They’ve never made it to this moment.”
Espana said he addressed the three-straight state semifinal defeats in the practices leading up to the four-team tournament.
“I told them during the practice week that ‘hey, we need to practice more intense and with more intention of trying to get to the final and do something special,’” he recalled. “Because if you’re not doing anything differently that we have the last three years, then we’re going to have the same result … Somebody was listening.”
And for the Railroaders, it wasn’t a usual suspect.
Espana told his team at the hotel before the game someone other than leading scorers Jesus Partida or Genaro Vazquez would have to step up. He was apparently talking to senior Jose Pintor.
After a “defensive break down” gave Chaparral a 1-0 lead just four minutes, Pintor subbed in with 13 minutes left in the first half. Pintor entered with three goals all season and scored twice in four minutes.
In the 31st minute, worked his way into the box and scored an unassisted goal to tie the game. In the 35th minute, he put back a loose ball Chaparral’s keeper couldn’t corral. It proved to be the game winner.
“He was just in the right place at the right time,” Espana said. “He’s never put his head down … He’s not your typical ‘oh it’s about me’ (player). He truly embodies what it is to be a team player.”
The 2-1 lead held into the second half when another unlikely player, Bernardo Simental provided an insurance tally in the 48th. It was his first goal of the season.
“(It was) resilient. It’s the only word I can think of right now,” Espana said of Pintor and Simental’s contributions. “We can’t depend on one guy.”
Vazquez finished off the scoring in the 69th minute, finally finding the net after seven shots on goal.
Sparks outshot Chaparral 17-5 in the win.
The Railroaders advanced to the 3A state title game on Saturday, where they will play 3A South champion, Western. Western (17-6-2) beat North Tahoe, 2-0, in the other semifinal.
“I don’t know much about them,” Espana said. “We beat North Tahoe 2-0 … It sounds like it’s going to be one really tight match.”
The Railroaders are looking for their first state championship since 2011, when they beat Truckee 1-0 in the title game. They advanced to the title game again in 2012, falling 3-2 to SECTA.