It was the semifinals of the 2019 4A boys soccer playoffs, and Stayton was in the second overtime of a scoreless tie at top-seeded Marist Catholic.
The Eagles had been rebuffed by a stout Marist Catholic defense throughout, but in the 94th minute, Jayden Esparza finally broke through by converting on a put-back from about 10 yards away into the left corner of the goal, giving them a berth in the final.
According to Stayton coach Chris Shields, it was the perfect illustration of the tireless play of Esparza.
“It wasn't his best game, but he just kept going and found himself at the end, in front of the goal, and he was able to put the ball in,” Shields said. “That kind of sums him up more than anything. He just goes and goes and goes, and he wears people down, not only physically, but mentally. That gas tank just never seems to empty.”
The always-active Esparza was named 4A player of the year as a sophomore in racking up 20 goals and 15 assists. He scored four goals in the playoffs for Stayton, which finished as state runner-up.
“I just play, run, don't stop until the game is over,” Esparza said.
Now Esparza is ready to take his game to the next level for Stayton, which is preparing for the shortened season to begin March. 1. The 5-foot-9, 135-pound Esparza is filling out physically, which should let his talent shine even more.
“I got a little stronger, a little quicker,” Esparza said. “I think I got a little better from last year. I can definitely tell. My team has told me I'm bigger now, more physical.”
Esparza might not be physically imposing, but it's his striking speed, indomitable will and ceaseless energy that breaks down opposing defenses.
“He's relentless,” Shields said. “This is my 19th year at Stayton, and I think he's right up there with my top three offensive players I've coached. He doesn't have a stop switch. And he's got a nose for the game.”
Despite his slight frame, Esparza doesn't back down from physical challenges.
“I just like to go in strong, always, keep that mindset,” Esparza said. “Go strong or else you could get hurt. Against big guys or small guys, I just go in strong. There are some plays I do get pushed around, but mostly I think I'm fine.”
Playing without fear is a trait Esparza has shown since his early days in the Stayton youth program, according to Shields.
“He's not afraid to throw his body around, even if he has no right throwing his body around,” Shields said. “He's willing to take some actual damage along the way. A lot of forwards tend to be pretty boys. They don't want to be touched, they just want to score goals. He's more blue-collar.”
Esparza creates a lot of his own chances, often tapping the ball away from unsuspecting midfielders and defenders and blazing a path to the goal.
“His speed is what sets him apart,” Shields said. “That quickness, people just aren't ready for it. It's shocking how people just aren't ready for it. They get caught with the ball, and he closes the space, and takes it from them.”
Esparza earned a starting spot as a freshman, playing opposite of senior forward Kevin Hernandez, who was the 4A player of the year the previous season. Esparza filled the complementary role nicely, contributing nine goals.
“I learned a lot from him,” Esparza said of Hernandez. “He helped me, to push me up. We had a good relationship. He took a lot of pressure away from me, and got me to do more things for the team.”
It was an ideal way for Esparza to break in with the Eagles.
“He didn't have the spotlight. All the pressure was on Kevin,” Shields said. “There were no expectations for Jayden. We knew he had great potential, and last year he kind of rode that wave of enthusiasm. He had the desire to be the best player on the field.”
Esparza became a more consistent threat as a sophomore, scoring against every team in the Oregon West Conference. The attention he received from defenders was key in two regular-season wins over Woodburn, which ended up beating Stayton in the state final.
“They had to know where he's at,” Shields said. “Somebody else is able to steal the show.”
The play of Esparza is a beacon of hope for the Eagles, who have finished as state runners-up four times (2014, 2015, 2017, 2019) since winning a championship in 2010. They return most of their roster from 2019, and looked formidable in the fall when they dominated in six matches, outscoring their opponents by about 30 goals.
It's unclear if the Eagles will get a chance at redemption this year, but if they do, a 4A title would be in their sights.
“We'll be a little better than last year,” Esparza said. “We'll have more communication, be more physical. I think we would have a shot at winning the championship.”