The end-to-end thrilling playoff opener on Thursday at Long Beach Poly played right into the Jackrabbits hands. Kenny Barnabee, Omar Juarez and Nathaniel Goodman all scored in the first half and Poly held off a late charge from Channel Islands to survive and advance 3-2 in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 bracket.
“I think it came down to styles,” Poly coach Eric Leon said. “They play an aggressive style of soccer and we’ll take that. Our offensive players can go with anyone. It was nail biting to say the least. That’s two very talented offensive teams and luckily for us we put our chances away in the first half, and it could’ve been more.”
The two teams combined for eight shots in the first ten minutes of the game, and while Channel Islands ran out of gas before halftime, Poly kept pushing on the counter attack. The Jackrabbits ended up outshooting the Raiders 22-16 in the game.
“We never stop working and we had more of the physical (presence) on our side,” Poly junior Omar Juarez said. “We push ourselves hard in practice which helps us during the game. We have better endurance and can push longer and that really stood out.”
After the 10 minute mark Poly took the next five shots and scored on two of those chances. The first goal came in the 20th minute when Juarez fed Kenny Barnabee with a perfect through ball from the top of the 18-yard box, and the senior forward scored on a deflection off the goalkeeper.
“It was just like the Wilson game where we had a lot of opportunities and not a lot of goals,” Barnabee said of the regular season finale that clinched Poly its second consecutive Moore League title. “That’s how we play. We play with a lot of pace, confidence and shots. We worked all week on counter attacks and finishing and it paid off.”
Juarez doubled the lead in the 22nd minute when he created his own shot from the top of the box and also scored on a deflection off the goalkeeper. The big midfielder was involved all over the field and held the ball up well for the home side.
“Omar Juarez is a special player,” Leon said. “He’s a man playing with boys. His composure on the ball is more important than anything. He has the physique to challenge with any player on the field. We’re so happy to have him on our team and this is an example of him carrying us on his back.”
Poly scored its third goal at the half hour mark when Goodman collected a loose cross on the end line. The senior turned the ball around and scored on the short side with a nifty finish on an acute angle.
Instead of sitting back and defending its lead, Poly came out of halftime and continued to push numbers forward with Juarez, Barnabee, David Huerta and Ethan Schnack leading the charge.
“You can absorb the pressure or go with it and we tried to capitalize,” Leon said. “The best defense is a good offense. Selfishly, I wanted the fourth goal.”
Channel Islands found its own rhythm on the counter attack in the second half. Carlos Torres scored off a scramble in the goal mouth in the 53rd minute, and Daniel Orozco cut the lead to 3-2 in the 66th minute with a cracking shot from the top of the box.
“We felt like we needed to wake up,” Juarez said. “We knew we got to confident. We were trying to remind each other that they still had plenty of time. When they scored that second goal it was some cold water (to the face) as they say and we woke up.”
Poly answered the second goal with a a handful of scoring chances at the other end.
“They can’t score from 100 yards away so we started closing down the middle a little bit by centralizing our two sixes so we could keep them a far away from goal as possible,” Juarez added. “The further away the better.”
Meanwhile, when Channel Islands did break through Poly goalkeeper Amir Diaz-Espinoza was up to make all six of his saves in the second half.
“It was a really exciting game and luckily we had the first half in our favor,” Juarez said.
The win moves Poly to the second round where they’ll face No. 2 seeded Servite on Saturday. The Friars (12-1-0) were Trinity League champions.
“We’re pissed the draw didn’t come out in our favor especially as a league champion,” Barnabee said. “We’re going to go into the game with a lot of fight. We’re not scared of anyone. We’re going to go in as hard as we can. No matter what the outcome is we know we’re going to give them a fight.”
“It’s tough to complete as a public school with private schools,” Leon added. “They have the resources that most public schools don’t have. They’ve been training because they don’t have any COVID protocols or restrictions. This season we’re months behind them in terms of preparation. But on Saturday it’s 11 vs. 11 with the same ball on the same field. We hope that our intensity is going to be at a level they can’t match.”