Ontario boys soccer coaches Daniel Dominguez, left, and Jaime Gonzalez. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)
ONTARIO – When Covid ended the fall 2020 sports season before it began, there wasn’t much the Ontario boys soccer team could do.
School was meeting online only, and for the first time since they were in sixth grade, the eight boys on the varsity team’s class of 2021 barely saw one another.
“It was a crushing blow” for the back-to-back league winners to think that they wouldn’t have the chance to try again for the state championship, said Coach Jaime Gonzalez.
So when Gov. Kate Brown announced in December that there would indeed be a fall sports season this spring, the boys worked to get in shape, mentally and physically.
Now, after winning the league 7-1-0 for the third year in a row, they are scheduled to play Seaside in Sisters at 3:30 PST this Tuesday, April 6 in the state quarterfinals.
In recent interviews with the Enterprise, players stressed the importance of their mentality to their success.
As two-time league champions, “we knew we had a target on our back,” said Javier Conchas, who plays defense. “It wasn’t going to be easy.”
In their toughest games, against La Grande, center mid Erick Lopez said that the game came down to “whoever wanted it the most, and we wanted it the most.”
“We took it and we fought hard to the end,” he added.
“(The state championship) is something we probably all think about, but we don’t really believe in it,” said Adrian Nuñez, who plays attacking mid. “We honestly do have a chance if everyone has the right mentality going in.”
Nuñez said that meant not getting psyched out about playing teams from the Portland area and other, more populous parts of the state.
“It’s cool that we come from a small sized (town), and all the other real competitors are from a big city,” he said.
It’s that small size, however, that has facilitated the years of what players and coaches referred to as a “chemistry,” “brotherhood,” or “family” between members of the team, and the senior class in particular.
It all started about six years ago, when Gonzalez and his brother Javier had the idea to start a club soccer league in Ontario.
“It started with a lot of parents’ (help),” Gonzalez said. “We scoped out kids who stood out, and we just went from there.”
This year’s graduating seniors were in sixth grade at the time – some of the youngest boys that Gonzalez recruited. Many already knew one another from the elementary school playground. Soon, they were playing tournaments in Boise.
“We got to know each other,” said Conchas. “We got to know how each one of us plays, and we just got used to each other.”
“We always throw shots at each other,” said Nuñez, who said the playful style of the team was helpful for accountability. “If you miss, you get made fun of. You’ll know when you have a bad shot, and everyone else will know too.”
The jokes continue on the team’s bus, where players said many of their best memories were of laughing and bonding with their teammates.
“My freshman year, we were going to Hidden Valley,” said Lopez. “It ended up being an 11-hour ride, I think because the bus driver took the wrong turn. But it was the best ride, because we all got to know each other even more.”
The chance to compete for the state championship with this senior class, said Gonzales, is “more special because we’ve seen them grow, and we know their parents. They’re like our own kids. We treat them like our own, and as the new kids come, they see that chemistry and they just feed off it.”
“It would be that much more special because it would be the first (statewide soccer championship) for Ontario,” he said.
But no matter what happens this week, Gonzalez and his assistant coach Daniel Dominguez have worked to equip their players for the future.
“At the end of our soccer careers, we’re going to have to grow up and find new hobbies,” said Conchas. “We have to take care of ourselves, save our money and stuff.”
“They’re like teachers, basically. Or I know that some of us see them as parents as well,” he added. “They showed us if we really love something, be passionate about it, give it all you’ve got, because in the end it could really benefit you. It could change your life for sure.”
“Hopefully something sticks with them, and they take that good advice and do something good with their lives,” said Dominguez.
News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.