Ontario boys' soccer coach Jaime Gonzalez. (The Enterprise/Joe Siess)

NYSSA – Prep soccer is back in Nyssa and Ontario but players from each school will take the field under a different league classification and after a long delay caused by Covid.

The pandemic inspired the creation of a new regional league – which replaces the former Greater Oregon League – that includes Nyssa, Ontario, Baker, Four Rivers Community School, La Grande and Pendleton.

The soccer squads kick off the non-league season the first week in March.

Four Rivers Community School’s boys’ soccer team will face La Grande while the girls’ team will play the Tigers at home Tuesday, March 2.

Ontario also begins its season March 2. The boys will host Baker while the Lady Tigers will travel to Baker.

On Thursday, March 4, Nyssa opens its season against Baker. The Nyssa girls’ team will host Baker while the boys team will play in Baker City. 

The regular season begins March 10.

There will be no playoffs this year.

The Oregon School Activities Association cited “differences between team and individual sports, anticipated issues with establishing equitable qualifying procedures, district adopted travel restrictions, gathering size restrictions based on county risk level capacity limits, and impacts associated with schools forming regional pods,” in an announcement regarding post-season play Feb. 18.

Plans for regional “culminating week” activities, which may replace the playoff season, are still in the works. 

Meanwhile, each team will play eight games during a shortened season that runs from the beginning of March until April 10. 

At Nyssa, boys’ coach Steven Escobedo said that his team was hoping to practice on grass instead of blacktop as the winter snow melted away. Now, only six players are allowed inside the gym at any one time, so to keep the team together, they’ve been forced outside despite the cold. 

“Even though we’re a young team, I’m excited about our athleticism, and I think with some experience these kids will be pretty competitive,” Escobedo said. 

Escobedo highlighted the talents of Javier Castro, a senior who plays striker/forward, and Elias Lazo, a sophomore front player, as particularly promising, along with freshman Anthony Erizmendi in the midfield and Carlos Castro and Austin Baker on defense. 

It has been two years since the team has made it to postseason play, Escobedo said. Last year, Nyssa’s four losses were all to the two teams that eventually made it to the playoffs, Umatilla and Riverside. This year, Escobedo expects his team’s toughest opponents to be those they haven’t faced before: La Grande and Ontario. 

“Ontario’s going to be really tough, they’ve gone really deep into state playoffs the last few years,” Escobedo said. 

Indeed, the boys’ coach at Ontario, Jaime Gonzalez, said that for the last two seasons, his team had won the league before losing in state playoffs to Woodburn, the eventual state champion. He also anticipated at least 10 returning seniors this year, with the caveat that participation might be down because of students working during the pandemic as well as schedule conflicts with club soccer in Idaho. 

“We’ll just kind of go with it and roll with the punches,” he said. “Whatever comes up, we’ll have to face.”

Gonzalez said the large senior class returning to the soccer team was full of impact players. 

“We have a strong team, I hope it goes well,” he said. “We’ve just got to get in some shape and hopefully prevent those injuries. That’s one of my biggest concerns, because we haven’t had a typical offseason.”

Gonzalez’s brother Javier, who coaches girls’ soccer at Ontario, voiced similar concerns. 

“The main thing is getting these girls back into shape,” he said. “That’s definitely going to be shown in that first game that first week.”

It was important to condition effectively, Gonzalez continued, “so you can play 90 minutes and minimize the chance of getting injured.”

Gonzalez has only been coaching the girls’ team for one year. Last season, the team went to the state playoffs and lost in the first round – a big improvement over the previous season, when the Lady Tigers posted a record of 1-12. 

“These girls definitely built a bunch of confidence,” said Gonzalez. “Their self-esteem was better.” 

“We lost good seniors but we got good classes coming in with the returners,” Gonzalez said.

The Ontario girls’ team will be led by captains Alondra Tenoco and Tiffany Nelson. 

In Nyssa, the girls’ team, under the direction of Carol Steinmetz, is also in a growth phase.

Last year, Steinmetz said, the team was very young and didn’t make it to the postseason. That was because “the year before we went to state (competition), and then we lost all those seniors. So last year we rebooted, and we had a good time, and we learned a lot. They never gave up so it was fun.”

Steinmetz will again get a handful of freshmen on the team. She also has a strong set of returners from last year, including Kate Vineyard, a junior who plays defense, Ashley Macedo, a senior and outside midfielder, Paola Trinidad, a senior and the goalkeeper, and Marly Ausman, a junior and universal player. 

Steinmetz expressed similar trepidations regarding the length of the season and her athletes’ physical conditioning.

“I think the shorter season will be tough because we’re not getting as many practices, as much reps on the ball, as you need. Once you play games, that’s how you really learn to play the game of soccer,” she said. However, she added that “It’ll be fine. You just have to dress warm and get ready. We’ll just prepare for everything.”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577. 

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