ONTARIO — A proverbial electric current filled the cool air Saturday afternoon at Ontario, beginning with the pre-game cheers, weaving through 80 minutes of physical, playoff-like soccer, and reaching peak voltage when Ontario’s Danny Rodriguez lined up for a penalty kick in the second half during a tight struggle.
The senior player broke out of a crouch at the official’s whistle, took long, smooth strides toward the ball, and tucked a shot in the top middle of the net, giving the Tigers a 3-2 lead over archrival Mac-Hi and clinching the league’s top spot.
“It’s a very big deal. We haven’t been in this position in a really long time, but we hold the destiny in our hands,” said Ontario head coach, Jaime Gonzalez. “In our league, we’re No. 1. We still have to go against Baker and La Grande.”
The Tiger boys entered the Greater Oregon League match against Mac-Hi occupying the second spot in the regional rankings.
To secure the top title, the Tigers had to blank a Mac-Hi attack. The Pioneers consistently applied pressure on the ball, pushing the offensive pace early in the first half of the game. But the Tigers’ attack responded.
“I think we did great on Mac-Hi’s pressure,” said Gonzalez. “We saw them up there, the first game was 2-1, and we knew it was gonna be a tough battle.”
The Greater Oregon League rivals have played two highly competitive matches this year — they played in mid-September with Ontario winning 2-1.
In the first half of Saturday’s game, Mac-Hi controlled the match with good connecting passes. When they neared the goal, Ontario’s defenders blunted the initiatives repeatedly.
“We started really slow. But we really locked it down during the second half,” Gonzalez said. “It’s nice to keep the ball, but we never advanced the ball much, like I was hoping. But we did do adjustments at half-time.”
Danny Rodriguez scored the first goal for the Tigers, but the Pioneers came back aggressively and scored minutes after to tie it up.
Brandon Rodriguez’s goal allowed Ontario fans to breathe again just before halftime. Danny Rodriguez was credited with the assist.
At the beginning of the second half, the Tigers didn’t spend much time in the attacking half of the field.
“At first, it seems we kinda had a hard start. We had possession of the ball, but we weren’t really dangerous,” said Gonzalez. “We were trying to spread them out a little bit to keep possession of the ball and pick our spots when we had a moment. When we had numbers up, we attacked and which we did to win the game.”
With about 10 minutes left on the clock, the Pioneers tied it up with a chipped ball over the keeper.
The Tigers regrouped quickly and put pressure on the Pioneers.
Ontario got an insurance goal with five minutes left on the clock. Mac-Hi fouled Ontario’s Enoc Ponce as he jumped to take a header. While the Mac-Hi keeper appeared to have tipped the penalty kick, the force of Rodriguez’s shot blasted the ball past his gloves to make it 3-2.
“I’m really proud of the boys,” Gonzalez said, noting a second-string presence in his starting lineup this week. “We’ve got a strong bench.”
The Tigers didn’t have one of their top defenders, Zekiel Parker, on the field. Gonzalez said Parker was out of town, so he bumped up Raul Hernandez from the bench to play center back and was happy with the results.
“(Raul) did a great job,” he said. Gonzalez said other players from the bench got some play time. “I’m really happy for those guys — they really stepped up for us.”
The Tigers are on track to capture the district title, which they haven’t done since 2012.
Ontario has two games left in the season. The Tigers will travel to Baker next Saturday before their final match against La Grande on Oct. 20.
Ontario and La Grande tied 2-2 on Sept. 29. If Ontario and La Grande both come out as winners next weekend, the two will vie for the champion spot of the Greater Oregon League at the Oct. 20 game.
Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377