A few weeks ago it looked like defending Moore League boys’ soccer champions Long Beach Poly needed a few wins just to stay in the playoff hunt. However, a reigniting of their fiery passion and some upsets around the league helped the Jackrabbits lift the trophy again on Thursday at Wilson High with a 1-0 victory.
The 12th minute goal from Poly junior David Huerta stood up after a thrilling contest. The Bruins had a chance to tie the game and clinch a share of the title with the last kick of the ball, but Poly goalkeeper Amir Diaz-Espinoza collected the clean sheet with just a couple of saves.
“The boys started to trust the system and started to trust each other,” Poly coach Eric Leon said of his teams turnaround. “It’s about creating that program aura that its not only talent that wins. It’s hard work with that talent that’s going to succeed. We played consistently throughout the year and won when it mattered. We grew and developed throughout the season.”
Poly showcased it’s passion and growth in the first half by being quick on the counter attack and outshooting Wilson 8-2 in the opening 40 minutes. The Jackrabbits outshot the Bruins 17-10 in the game.
“We just had the mentality to come out and put all of our effort into it and play as hard as we can,” Poly junior Omar Juarez said. “We took the field like it was the last game we were ever going to play. That mentality always works. We all focused in and wanted one thing and that’s what we did.”
Juarez set up the only goal by feeding Huerta on the left flank. He beat one defender with a quick move and then bounced the goal in off Wilson goalkeeper Gavin Pool Harris who had come off his line.
“I was looking for it and just ran my play to the side and I knew I was going to get it because (Omar and I) play each other all the time,” Huerta said. “When I got it I took the chance, shot it and it went in. The goal meant a lot to us.”
Poly had a few more gilt-edged opportunities to score before halftime but couldn’t find the back of the net. However, it was clear the Jackrabbits were not frustrated by the misses and just kept charging the Wilson backline.
“That was the story of our season, missing opportunities like that, and that’s just kind of what we have to live with,” Poly forward Kenny Barnabee said. “We put those away in practice all the time but to miss these in the game is nothing new to us.”
Leon said a midseason switch of Poly’s formation was also key to the turnaround and the success on Thursday.
“We were getting beat a lot on counters and our defense was very vulnerable so we restructured the center midfield to play a little bit more conservative,” Leon said.
That effort was led by seniors Bryant Amador and Ethan Schnack who helped the Jackrabbits enjoy the lion’s share of possession and quickly turned defense into offense.
“The main thing over skill is the work ethic,” Schnack said. “You can pass all you want but at the end of the day the team that wants it more is always going to win. Our team always has to fight for our victories, even the smallest ones. We persevered through this season. We just wanted it tonight. We outworked them and that reflected on the scoreboard.”
Both teams traded scoring chances at the beginning of the second half, and in the 48th minute Wilson had multiple shots on goal in a row that were either blocked by defenders or pushed aside by Diaz-Espinoza.
“I feel like we were lacking that extra two percent to just knock it in,” Wilson coach CJ Brewer said. “There were numerous times where we were in the six-yard box and it just took that finish and it was just left wanting.”
As the game got longer it was clear the Bruins were one kick away from pulling even and claiming a share of the league title, but Poly defended as a unit and limited Wilson to just a couple quality shots on goal.
“I love these guys to death they left everything on the field for us,” Diaz-Espinoza said of his defenders. “I love them so much.”
As the final seconds ticked down, Wilson set itself up for one last shot off a long throw in. The ball was flicked on to Daniel Cervantes in the box but his one-time shot went just high over the cross bar.
“If you put yourself in position where its the last second of the last regular season game and you are inches away from a goal then you put yourself in a good position,” Brewer said. “I’m really proud of the boys for out performing their own expectations. We weren’t expected to be inches away from a league championship going into the season. At the end of the season that was the result.”
The final whistle blew immediately after that chance to set off the Poly celebration.
“Our composure and discipline and sacrifice to win every 50/50 ball was there today,” Leon said.
“It felt like we were playing one of our best games of the season,” Amador said. “We played with so much intensity and so much passion out there. Today we put it all out there.”
Multiple Jackrabbits said that rededicating themselves to their craft in practice and using lessons they learned last year while winning their first league title in 15 years was also key to their improvement.
“Last year we had a lot of fight on that team,” Barnabee said. “We didn’t show that fight at the beginning of this year. We stared off slow and played sloppy. We had a couple speeches from our coaches and seniors on the team about the reason why we won last year. We brought that fight into the second half of league. It willed us to win these games down the stretch.”
Leon added that the overall quality of the league also turned his team into the cohesive unit he knew they could be all season.
“Every team at the top of the table lost to teams at the bottom of the table and that’s a reflection of the league,” Leon said. “Cabrillo did us a favor (by beating Millikan) and Lakewood did us a favor last week against Wilson. That’s just how the league goes and I’m excited to be a part of this league.”
Despite the heartbreaking loss, Wilson and Brewer are trying stay positive with their eyes on the CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoffs coming next week.
“Our goal has always been to make a dent in the playoffs and this experience and this environment is something that you can’t coach or teach,” Brewer said. “Now when we go to the playoffs we’ll be more numb to the environment and we’ll be able to play soccer while chaos is happening. That’s a huge advantage.”
Poly now turns its attention to the Division 1 bracket full of top private school foes.
“I’m excited for what this team can do and hopefully we can keep this momentum,” Leon said.
The CIF playoffs pairings will be released on Saturday morning and the postseason games start next week.