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Senior Andrew Andrade heads the ball in the championship game Feb. 22.

Most of the Sanger crowd that drove down to Tulare Union’s Bob Mathias Stadium remained long after home team Tulare Western celebrated winning the California Interscholastic Federation Central Section Division II Championship on Feb. 22.

None blinked when the Mustangs piled on top of each other after penalty kicks decided a game that went into two 10-minute overtime periods, followed by two 5-minute “golden goal” sudden death opportunities. The game remained tied at 1-1. And Tulare Western hadn’t scored a single goal.

Until the penalty kick period. 

Strange? Perhaps. But not as odd as the proliferation of penalties and red cards that resulted in starting goalies from both teams being ejected, the Mustangs’ quite late in the contest. Sanger’s contingent, which numbered about 400, and that estimate comes from a studious sideline source, remained quiet though hardly pleased with the officiating.

The Apaches throwing a Scott Sterling (of YouTube fame) in as penalty goalie wouldn’t have made it any weirder.

The game drew nearly every Sanger Unified official from athletic director Brian Penner and activities director Ronnie Scott to Sanger High principal Dan Chacon and superintendent Adela Jones. Associate superintendent of educational services Tim Lopez continued scrutinizing the ejection of Apache goalie Eddie Cuevas after an altercation that purportedly involved a Mustangs’ bench player.

Lopez belonged to the last Sanger Apache soccer team that had reached lofty heights, the 1981 West Yosemite League Champions. He even returned to coach his Apaches in 1990. Still, he wasn’t rattled. He knew like every other adult in that stadium that this group of boys from Sanger had reached lofty heights and played one heck of an entertaining game.

“It’s historic our kids went this far,” he said. “Every kid who played soccer for Sanger is behind them.

“Including me.”

Support shown the team rivaled that of the football Apaches or the girls and boys basketball teams which recently roared into championship games in Fresno’s spacious Selland Arena. And the fans weren’t about to leave without their soccer players, despite temperatures that dipped down to 42 degrees. “Did you see the crowd?” Scott asked. “It was like a football game.”

Jason Corrales, one of many players next year who will chafe for redemption, maintained perspective despite the crushing disappointment of getting so close to victory. “Look at that plaque,” he said of the CIF trophy he and his Apaches were none too happy with. He stood surrounded by his teammates on the darkened field. “That’s second place. Sanger has never done this. We worked hard. I’m proud we got here. We set the standard for Sanger soccer.”

Junior varsity coach Donato Mireles had touched on the theme moments before. “You set the stage for Sanger soccer for the next five years. You gave it everything you’ve got. No other team has come this far.”

And head coach Alex Gutierrez, who acknowledged the pain his athletes experienced at that moment, said, “You have shown that Sanger has the most courageous players in the Valley. To play with everything on the line — to lose but to walk out as one. I know it hurts. But you’re not alone. It hurts together.”

Ezequiel Chavez, one of a couple freshmen on the team and already a force, tried to soften the harsh self recriminations and second guessing of many of his teammates. “I love you guys,” he said. “You’re all my brothers. It’s always a good time with you guys. I wish good luck to (you) seniors. We lose sometimes in life, but that’s a lesson. I have faith in every single one of you guys.”

The game marked the end of the high school careers of Saul Sanchez, Ryan Serrano, Andrew Andrade, Hunter Reick, Levin Thompson, Gabriel Sanchez, Juan Garcia, Kevin Medrano, Adrian Zorrilla and Angel Verduzco.

Cristian Torres, a sophomore, said he knew the Apaches would pull off a win. He said he didn’t doubt it for a moment. “Next year, we’ll come back stronger,” he said. “We have the mentality we can be here.”

Sanger dominated the entire game. The Mustangs’ goalie proved worthy of his position, however. After the first goal by Luis Villegas about 16 minutes into the first half, the shots just didn’t find the back of the net. And if not for an errant pass from a defender to his goalie that randomly arced into the net for the Apaches, the outcome would have been far different.

Sanger vs. Edison

Before the semi-final game with Edison, senior Saul Sanchez had predicted his Apache varsity soccer team would score five goals.

Sanchez has made predictions before. Madera on Jan. 23 comes to mind.

But this was the championships. To say Sanger High had been on a bit of a soccer drought would be seriously underreporting the facts. The most recent reference to the Apaches in the sport involves a 1981 league championship. To get this far stretches the boundaries of experience.

Then not even 2 minutes into the game, Sanchez lit up the scoreboard. The crowd, which eventually pushed about 400 at Tom Flores Stadium on Feb. 20 reacted like football fans. Scratch that. They cheered louder, pound for pound. People still waited in line to pay for their tickets.

The guy with the drum pounded out a cadence that sounded like victory. He was right. Sanger pulled together for a 4-0 win.

"I'm surprised we didn't get five," Sanchez said after nearly everybody congratulated the team on the field. "We shoulda got five. But we got four. That's OK."

Definitely.

Coach Gutierrez told the story of a 10-year-old who came up to him before the game and said he wanted to be an Apache. He said the aspiring athlete reflected exactly what he intended for the program when he took it over a season earlier. "Coming into this game, I looked at it like the big picture of what we want," he said.

And that's to make history. That 10-year-old likely won't be the only one inspired by this team.

"This was the biggest soccer game in Sanger soccer history," Gutierrez said. And it was at home.

Norma Morales, president of the nonprofit Sanger Soccer League, brought a slew of young fans. They mobbed those on the team they knew — and others. Their excitement and energy could not be masked. And it added a layer to that festival atmosphere. Don't forget the drum guy who was joined by at least a half dozen others with noise makers. The sparse Edison crowd on the opposite side of the stadium appeared a bit forlorn by comparison. 

"They loved it," Morales said. And the win? "It's huge. It motivates these kids. Soccer's growing a lot (in Sanger)."

Sanchez and fellow seniors Gabriel Sanchez and Juan Garcia volunteer as coaches for the league. They were treated like celebrities. Morales had them pose for photographs after the game with the members of her league who attended the game. 

Torres scored the second goal for the Apaches that night with about 9 minutes remaining in the first half. Edison got a little rattled at that point and amped up their attacks, and with about 4 minutes in the first half the Tigers nearly scored.

However, Apache goalie Eddie Cuevas scrambled, diving to his left and with the tips of his fingers deflected the ball from the net. The crowd cheered. Sanger regained control of the game after that and ended the half 2-0.

Cuevas said he didn't remember exactly what was going through is head at that point just that "I can't let it go in." And he remained confident his Apaches could repeat the performance. "History in the making," he said of the win. "This is the team that will do it."

Garcia likewise said he believes in his teammates. 

The midfielder displayed some pretty effective footwork against the Tigers, regularly zipping past them to deliver the ball to one of the Sanger forwards. "We all came out 110 percent, that's for sure," he said of the Edison game.

 Gabriel Sanchez said he wanted to continue making history. "I thought it was going to be a 1-0 or a 2-0 game," he said. "(But) once we scored that third goal, we just got confident."

 The third and fourth goals were scored by senior Andrew Andrade and junior Luis Villegas. Andrade got right up to the Edison goal and fired in the ball only to have to goalie deflect it upward. Andrade didn't miss a beat, jumped and headed the ball into the net. Sanger High administrator Alfredo Ponce danced on the sidelines, the drummer pounded out an Apache beat and people screamed even louder than before.

Senior Ryan Serano put the win in perspective. Like the rest of the team, he displayed every ounce of his talent, allowing nothing to pass and nearly every play delivering the ball to his forwards or open man. "Everything I wanted," he said. "I've been working four years for this. It's a dream come true. I have no words to explain this."

He said his coaches made everything possible. 

The Apaches didn't always appear unbeatable. They had their ups and downs during the season. At first, the offense struggled to find the net and score. Sometimes the defense fell a step behind the opponents' attacks. Sanger wound up with a 13-9-5 record. The Tulare Western Mustangs, who beat the El Diamonte Miners from Visalia 2-1 on Feb. 20, brought a 20-6-3 record.

Saul Sanchez said he had faith. "From the beginning, we knew we were the team to beat," he said.

Gutierrez said his athletes played well. And he said success is what he and his assistants had been building toward since last year. "I give them a 95 percent," he said of the Apaches performance that night. "My philosophy in coaching and life is we're always getting better, and that's what we've done. We just need to be physically ready."

The reporter can be contacted by email at nemethfeatures@gmail.com or by phone at the Herald at (559) 875-2511.

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