HILLSBORO – The first thing Ontario junior goalkeeper Martin Benites did after being presented with the state championship trophy Saturday afternoon, following the Tigers’ 1-0 win over Phoenix at the OSAA / OnPoint Community Credit Union Boys 4A Soccer State Championship at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, was rush toward the stands, trophy held high, with a huge smile on his face.
The win, the first-ever soccer blue trophy for the 14-1 Tigers, wasn’t just for his team or his school. It was for the hundreds of loyal fans who made the six-hour drive west from the town of Ontario, located less than 10 miles from the Idaho border; and for the 11,000 strong that make up this potato-farming community, who followed and supported these Tigers during their journey to immortality.
“We’ve been wanting this forever,” said first-year head coach Daniel Dominguez. “You saw how many people came all this way to support.”
The only goal in the very competitive, intense and highly entertaining match came in the fifth minute. Ontario senior Jaaziel Chavez, the team’s leading scorer, controlled a Phoenix goal kick that went directly to him in space. A speed merchant, Chavez maneuvered around one defender and found himself one-on-one with the goalie. He did not miss, netting his 21st goal of the season with a blast from 10 yards out.
“It was a mistake,” Chavez said of the goal kick. “I just punished them from there. We practice shooting a lot. I was confident in my shot and it went in. And I’m glad it did. Now we’re state champs.”
Ontario’s side of the Liberty Stadium bleachers erupted when the ball creased the net. Chavez is family. The whole team is family. The goal…the success…it felt personal.
When Jaime Gonzalez took over the program in 2015, the team started to climb. The creation of the Ida-Ore Soccer Club in 2014, run by Gonzalez, his brother, Javier Gonzalez, and Dominguez, provided the foundation.
From the first league title in decades, to winning two in a row, to hosting a home playoff match, to making the state semifinals, there were a series of firsts as Ontario climbed to relevance. Gonzalez stepped down after last year’s quarterfinal run, but his assistant, Dominguez, took over, bringing continuity.
“I’m lucky enough to follow Coach Jaime from last year,” Dominguez said, noting that Gonzales was in the stands offering his support. “I didn’t have to teach them too much.”
Dominguez also didn’t need to build a foundation of trust with the players as a first-year head coach.
“Our coaches, we know their families and most of the boys since they were little,” he explained.
For the rest of the first half, Chavez, known as “Chino,” as the most exciting player on the pitch. He used his blazing speed to consistently terrorize the Phoenix defense with heart-stopping runs. In the 13th minute, his hard shot trickled through the hands of Phoenix keeper Julius Bolstad, but went just wide of the post. In the closing seconds, he unloaded, after a nice pass from Cielo Marlia-Larsen created space, but Bolstad, a big presence on the end line, calmly caught the ball.
Phoenix countered Ontario’s offensive speed with eye-popping power courtesy of senior Daniel Palomino. He blasted a left-footed rocket three minutes into the match, which skimmed just left of the goal. And, in the tenth minute, his right footed rocket from distance was directed over the crossbar by Benites.
In the 26th minute, Phoenix, making its first finals appearance since 2011, almost got the equalizer. A cross into the box was originally misplayed by Benites, but the junior was able to keep his cool during the ensuing frenzy and reached around a Phoenix forward with his hands to snare the ball.
Antonio Camargo, Ethan Martinez and Dominic Crenshaw complemented Palomino and Bolstad in the game first 40 minutes for Phoenix.
Hugo Mendoza and Marcos Bauer helped shut down any Phoenix flurries in the half’s closing seconds.
Although Phoenix trailed 1-0 at the break, the Pirates were clearly in the match. They’d outshot Ontario, 6-4, and had a 3-1 advantage in corner kicks.
On Sept. 16, Phoenix had no shot to make the state playoffs, let alone the 4A finals. The Pirates, who were No. 4 in the pre-season OSAAtoday 4A Coaches Poll, started the year 0-4-1
“All the games were close, but we couldn’t seem to break through,” said coach Chris Gallegos. “People counted us out at the beginning of the season because we lost so many seniors and good players. We knew that we could have something special if everyone committed to the team and our goals.
Once conference play began, Phoenix started to hit its stride. It lost just twice more in the regular season, both to undefeated Henley, losses the Pirates avenged in a penalty kick win in the state semifinals.
Forty minutes into the final, Phoenix looked nothing like a team that started 2022 with zero wins over its first five matches; rather, it looked like a team as capable as Ontario of hoisting the championship trophy once the final whistle blew.
The second half was as competitive, fast-paced and entertaining as the first. Crenshaw worked to slow the speedy Chavez by being more physical with him. With the match played end to end, both teams had their chances.
Two minutes into the half, Ontario earned a free kick from 27 yards out. Jamis Gonzalez, the team’s play maker, took the shot but Bolstad was there to foil the attempt.
Three minutes later, Palomino unleashed another rocket, this time from 35 yards out. Benites needed to make a sprawling save in a scramble situation to preserve Ontario’s shutout.
Indeed, despite Chavez’ electrifying goal, Benites might have been Ontario’s MVP on this day. In the 54th minute, he was involved in a collision with Jenner Selden. Selden had a great chance with his left foot after a nice entry pass. Benites charged off his line to deflect the ball as Selden swung his leg. A mighty collision was the result, with both boys down, as the ball slowly trickled towards Ontario’s goal before Mendoza cleared it away before it crossed the goal line.
Benites, cleated in the head, got the worst of the encounter. After being on the ground for several minutes, he needed help to get off the field.
Ontario does not have a backup goalie. Initially, freshman reserve Esmael Becerril was slated to replace Benites. Had that substitution actually occurred, Benites would not have been eligible to return if able. After discussion, sophomore Hayden David, who was on the field at the time, donned the goalie jersey and stepped between the posts.
Benites was able to return to the game three minutes later, his head wrapped in gauze. It’s a good thing he did, because he made the save of the match with 18 minutes remaining.
Martinez started the stretch by stealing a ball for Phoenix and earning a corner kick. Isai Pinon took the corner left-footed. It found Selden’s head. The header would have beaten most keepers, but not Benites, who stabbed at the ball with his right arm, making a remarkable save to keep the ball out of the goal.
Phoenix remained relentless for the rest of the game. With 11 minutes left in regulation, Palomino created a great chance with a cross to the left foot of Camargo, but the freshman could not put pace on a shot that went wide.
Palomino continued to create chances until the end of the game. He passed to Pinon who passed to Camargo with less than 10 minutes left, but the header didn’t half enough oomph to be a true scoring threat.
In the last minute, with Bolstad up front from this goalkeeper position, Phoenix applied the pressure. Jacob Moody took a corner with 21.6 seconds on the clock and Phoenix created chaos in the goal mouth trying to net the equalizer. It was not to be. Moody took one last shot out of the mad scramble but the ball sailed wide.
For Ontario, the final whistle could not have come one second later. It signaled that the Tigers had withstood the onslaught and were state champions.
Bauer, Gonzalez and Efrain Juarez distinguished themselves in the second half for Ontario. Palomino and Pinon were forces for Phoenix.
After the match, Gallegos lamented all the opportunities that eluded his team, including many passes to the wing that could have led to scoring chances but for one skip too far.
“Sometimes a little luck helps,” said the Phoenix coach. “The ball skipped through at the right time our past few games. This time it didn’t. Hats off to Ontario. They played well and took advantage of our mistake.”
“It’s been an uphill battle the whole year,” Gallegos continued. “I’m just so proud of these guys. To get to this level…Tons of other kids won’t ever get here. So close! Just so close! I couldn’t be more proud.”
Dominguez said before the match that getting to the state title match was always the goal. Take one more step. But his Tigers had a new goal once they got here: win it all, for themselves and everyone in Ontario.
Under enormous pressure, they made that one goal stand up.
“I knew my kids had it in them to come through,” Dominguez said. “And they did.”