Senior midfielder Adair Rodriguez (5) is Riverside's emotional leader.
Senior midfielder Adair Rodriguez (5) is Riverside's emotional leader.

Since winning the 3A/2A/1A boys soccer title in 2017, Riverside's path to another championship has been blocked by its nemesis, Oregon Episcopal School.

The Pirates had strong teams, but lost to OES in the 2018 semifinals and 2019 quarterfinals. They even dropped nonleague games to the Aardvarks in both seasons.

So Riverside – which didn't meet OES in the COVID-shortened spring schedule – took great satisfaction when it opened the season Aug. 27 with a 3-1 home win over the Aardvarks, the state runners-up in 2018 and 2019 and the No. 1 team in the OSAAtoday preseason 3A/2A/1A coaches poll.

“A lot of our guys were freshmen and sophomores those years, and now that they're seniors, it's kind of like payback time,” said Riverside coach Jose Duenas, whose team is No. 4 in the coaches poll. “We were ready. We knew we couldn't put our guard down at any minute because OES is OES.”

It was the perfect way to start a season filled with promise for the Pirates, who improved to 2-0 after beating 4A McLoughlin 2-1 on Sept. 2.

“We felt like all the hard work that they've been doing in the offseason on their own, and a lot of conditioning, that whole week we grinded, was for one reason, and that was to win,” Duenas said.

The Pirates graduated high-scoring forward Gerardo Lopez but have plenty of experience with nine seniors on their roster, including five four-year varsity players in midfielders Adair Rodriguez, Erick Zavala, Diego Magana and Jose Napoles and defender Humberto Sanchez.

The attack is adjusting to the loss of Lopez.

“We lost a really good forward up top, but everybody stepped up,” Duenas said. “As a coach, that's what you want. You want your full team focused and playing as one. I think losing him, it was like a silver lining.”

Senior midfielder Pablo Claustro scored twice and freshman forward Darek Castaneda had a goal in the win over OES. Napoles and sophomore forward Wyatt Browne scored as Riverside beat McLoughlin, avenging a loss from the spring. Sophomore Juan Medina was the goalkeeper in both matches.

Sanchez anchors a defensive line that includes Benny Sanchez and Ivan Franco, seniors who joined the team in the spring after not playing since youth soccer.

“They were really rusty,” Duenas said. “They put in the work out of the season on their own, and they sharpened up their tools, and right now they're at a really good level.”

Rodriguez is the team's emotional leader.

“He doesn't give up,” Duenas said. “Losing is not in his vocabulary. He has high standards for everyone. If he has to put someone in their spot, he puts them in their spot.”

Riverside started slow in the spring – losing to 5A The Dalles and McLoughlin, then tying McLoughlin – before finishing the season with six consecutive wins.

“The sad part is, once we got it rolling, it ended,” Duenas said. “We went a whole year without any type of activity. Things weren't clicking. We lost touch with each other, and lost the connection. The chemistry wasn't there. I believe this is what we've got going on right now in the fall compared to the spring.”

Duenas, a 2003 Riverside graduate, is in his third season as the team's coach. He joined the coaching staff as an assistant to Francisco Velasquez in 2015 and was part of the 2017 team that won the school's second state championship. The other title was in 2011.

“That was a big team with a lot of seniors,” Duenas said of 2017. “So we knew not to have high expectations for at least a couple years. The following year after that was just rebuild, start from scratch. We're building momentum now.”

Riverside will play at two-time reigning state champion Catlin Gabel on Sept. 18. The Eagles are ranked No. 2.

La Salle 'sharp' in 5A showdown

Reigning 5A champion La Salle Prep, playing its first game since the return of coach Monty Hawkins, dominated visiting Corvallis 4-1 in a battle of state contenders Thursday night.

The Falcons, ranked No. 2 in the OSAAtoday preseason coaches poll, got goals from senior Mizael Harris in the sixth and ninth minutes – the first assisted by junior Quentin Strange – to take control against the No. 3 Spartans (1-1-1).

The Falcons made it 3-0 in the 30th minute when freshman Vance Sheffield scored on a header off a corner kick by senior Johannes Gikas. Corvallis got a goal from senior Tommy Wright in the 38th minute, but La Salle Prep held on, adding a goal by senior Luke Bjelland at the 50-minute mark.

“We've got a lot of firepower,” Hawkins said. “They were in full effect. Finishing was clinical in the first 10 minutes of the game. They were sharp. This team is going to go after people.

“It was a great way to start the season. We had to wait forever.”

Hawkins coached at 6A Sherwood for the past 14 seasons before returning to La Salle Prep, where he went 78-13-9 in six seasons (1990-95), including a 3A/2A/1A co-title in 1994 and state runner-up finishes in 1991 and 1993.

Corvallis represented an early challenge. La Salle Prep played the Spartans in the 2018 state final, losing 1-0, and beat them 3-1 in the 2019 quarterfinals.

Stayton 'pushes through'

Stayton, which won the 4A Showcase in the spring and was voted No. 1 in the OSAAtoday preseason coaches poll, is off to a 3-0 start.

The Eagles followed a 1-0 road win over No. 4 Valley Catholic on Sept. 2 with a 3-0 home victory against No. 5 North Marion on Tuesday.

Sophomore Ishmel Esparza got Stayton started against North Marion by scoring in the fifth minute. Sophomore forward Jesse Wright and senior forward Jayden Esparza added goals in the 48th and 60th minutes, respectively, for the Eagles.

Stayton's undersized attack found a way to break through against a physical North Marion back line that features senior Leonardo Mercado.

“We’re a small team, but we’re used to the big guys, and I think we can push through it,” Wright said. “They got a hard defense. All of their guys in the back were huge. But I think that pushes us all forward. It helps us all.”

North Marion (0-2-1), which opened with a 1-0 loss to Philomath, played host Valley Catholic to a 1-1 draw Thursday.

Jeremy McDonald contributed to this report