Taking on an unbeaten, defending State Champion team in the school’s first ever appearance in the semifinals seemed like a monumental task to overcome.
And although the box score would reveal a lopsided outcome, it did not show how much fight the Taft 7-12 boys soccer team exemplified throughout the match.
It was a battle between two unbeaten teams when the Tigers traveled to Catlin Gable, just one game away from the State Championship. The home team would score several goals early on in the contest, en route to a 6-0 victory.
“Playoffs are tough,” head coach Ryan Ulicni said. “It’s a one-and-done type of situation. Making it to the semifinals and getting defeated by the defending state champs I would still call a success.”
The high scoring Eagles, who eventually would be crowned this year’s State Champions once again, would have piled on the goals if it weren’t for the stark defensive work from goalkeeper Sam Cortes, and defenders Estib Hernandez and Ivan Cortez.
Cortes turned back nearly 20 shots at the goal as the Tigers never hung their heads throughout the night.
“Not only did they not give up till the end, they increased the intensity,” Ulicni said. “I had seen each player directly take charge of the game in their own way and make an impact on the game.”
Despite the loss, the Tigers accomplished a lot this season with a perfect regular season, numerous All-League award winners and a district championship.
“This is the kind of progress that will not only carry over to the next year, but the younger generation, who have seen these boys accomplish this much at this level, will fuel them for years to come,” Ulicni said.
In a season full of highlights, Ulicni said his favorite part was watching their potent offense all season. Taft’s 117 goals scored throughout the season was the most of any team in the state at any level, even the champion Eagles who recorded 113.
“The goals are always something to celebrate,” Ulicni said. “Last year we probably had just as many shots, but not near as many goals. It’s always exciting to see goals scored. The quality of goals made the game better in every way.”
Taft’s defensive prowess was worth noting too. Giving up just 15 goals in 18 games is not easy and their defense certainly provided some highlights of their own, with 10 shutouts this season.
“The biggest standout I’d say is our defense,” Ulicni said. “That many shutouts would be directly contributed not only to our ‘highlight reel’ goalkeeper, but our back line who worked so well together.
"Our midfield had the most work to do all season. Assisting in offense and defense all game is no easy task. They made it look just so.”
Looking ahead, the Tigers will lose several seniors from this year’s squad including Player of the Year and team captain Edson Fuentes, who was a lethal scorer all year and defender and team captain Estib Hernandez, who was a key player on the backline. Additionally, Ulicni said he will miss the uniqueness, energy and speed of role player Kaden Wright.
“He split his time between track and soccer, but could also make an impact jumping into the pace of the game,” Ulicni said. “I will always feel like I should have given the seniors more, but I am honored to share the accomplishments we had this year.”
Even though Taft says goodbye to several components of their historic team, they also return numerous starters and key players like Cortes, William Calderon, Alex Del Valle, Jose Flores, Ethan Thomas and many others. Ulicni said the core of the team is already looking to run it back next year.
“With them seeing what they can accomplish with hard work and focus has given them a renewed sense of confidence… That is something that cannot be taught,” he said. “But once it is realized, it is my job to keep a challenging and positive learning experience so that they can grow into better players. I will be challenging and learning more myself, so that we are all more prepared.
“We are going to be back for another run. Next time even better than ever.”