Jose Garcia has had his share of strong teams in 31 years of McLoughlin soccer. The Pioneers won three straight state titles from 2005 to 2007 and played for the title in 2009 and again last year. He firmly believed, however, that this year’s squad, featuring five seniors who have been four-year starters, was his best yet.
On Saturday at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, before a massive crowd of boisterous supporters that made the six-hour trek from Milton-Freewater in the Northeast part of the state near the Washington border, Mac-Hi confirmed Garcia’s belief by dominating for all but the first minute and the last in a 3-1 win over top-seeded Westside Christian. The 3A/2A/1A title at the OSAA / OnPoint Community Credit Union Boys Soccer Championships was the fourth all-time for the Pioneers, who finished 18-0-1.
The win capped a magical run through the playoffs for McLoughlin. The Pioneers avenged last year’s championship match loss by defeating seven-time champion Oregon Episcopal School, 4-2, in the quarterfinals; then went on the road to get past 14-time champion Catlin Gabel, 4-3 in penalty kicks, in the semis.
“It feels so special because it’s not easy to beat those teams,” Garcia said. “We made up our minds since last year. We went home sad but made a promise that we were going to bring this home.”
“It was a good journey,” senior Almikar Garcia added. “I’m glad we had to face those hard teams because it prepared us for today.”
One year ago, Mac-Hi did not leave Liberty quite so happy. Making their first appearance in the state final in 13 years, the team played nervous for most of the game and dropped a 2-1 decision to OES.
The hard work started immediately after that loss. With all but one starter back for 2023, this was going to be the year.
“I have a great group of kids who worked so hard,” Coach Garcia said. “Getting here is not easy. It was an adventure and needed hard work and dedication.”
In Westside Christian, making its first appearance in a state final, Mac-Hi encountered an Eagle team on a 16-match winning streak since a season-opening 1-0 loss to 4A Estacada. Garcia told his team not to worry about the opponent.
“We learned from the last time,” he said. “This is our game. I know they’re undefeated. That’s just words. We know how to play and we’re going to come out and play how we play. Don’t play their game.”
And play they did! The Pioneers put their overwhelming speed and immense skill on display almost immediately. It was dazzling. Almikar Garcia, Geovanny Sandoval, Angel Castillo, Michael Wolden, Romario Garcia, Adrian Camarena…they attacked incessantly, putting immense pressure on the Westside defense. Mac-Hi scored three goals but could realistically have had three times as many.
That McLoughlin was held to just three goals, one of which was a penalty kick; is a testament to the brilliance of Eagle keeper Gabe Wong. The junior faced 14 shots on goal, most from point-blank range, and saved 12 of them. Almikar Garcia scored twice but would have had five or more but for Wong’s sensational effort.
“He did amazing,” Coach Garcia said. “He saved a lot. It should have been 10-0. That’s what I said to Almikar. He missed five goals. The goalie had a night. He saved them a lot.”
As dominant as McLoughlin was, the match might have taken on a different arc had Westside Christian managed to net the first goal. The Eagles earned a corner kick in the first minute and almost scored, as Brady Housley, the Special District 1 POY, sent one into the box that Andy Wong elevated to get a head on but sent over the crossbar.
The McLoughlin onslaught began two minutes later when Almikar Garcia sent a sweet pass through to Sandoval. Jack Leland was there to quell the threat for Westside Christian, but that was just the beginning. Sandoval, Almikar Garcia and Castillo established themselves as dangerous in the first few minutes and did not relent.
“I definitely saw a lot of shots,” Wong said. “We held them back for as long as we could. They’re a phenomenal team.”
The first goal came in the eighth minute. Almikar Garcia, who had 38 of the Pioneers’ state-leading 131 goals coming into the final, settled a ball in the box, dribbled to the right and unleashed a rocket from eight yards out that not even an Olympic keeper could have stopped.
That proved to be the only goal of the half, largely because Wong was just so good. He made difficult save after difficult save, as Mac-Hi kept the pressure on with its speed and precision passing into the seams. Wong also got help from the crossbar in the 31st minute to keep McLaughlin from scoring again on a crafty give and go and give again between Sandoval and Castillo, the state’s career goals leader.
Four minutes into the second half, McLoughlin finally got its second goal. Wolden, attacking, was pulled down in the box, resulting in a penalty kick. Danny Gonzalez, who is part of a strong back line that also includes Jose Gomez, took the shot and scored on a straightaway kick that beat Wong, who had dived to the left.
Six minutes later, McLoughlin struck again. Castillo sent a great through ball to Almikar Garcia. Garcia, who had nine shots on goal for the match, finally got his second past Wong with a right footed flick to the right of the Westside keeper.
Westside never stopped trying – Housley, especially, worked hard to create chances – and scored in the game’s waning seconds while keeping Mac-Hi from scoring any further. The goal came courtesy of a Will Ficker header with two seconds left off of Housley’s corner.
Almikar Garcia did not see Westside Christian’s goal. As the announcer started to count down from 10 seconds, the senior got very emotional, putting his hands on his head and wiping away tears before falling to the ground, overwhelmed by the moment.
“Growing up, my dad got me to play from a very young age,” he explained. “He passed away three years ago. I dedicated this win to him.”
McLoughlin’s win wasn’t just a win for the team or the school. It was a win for Milton-Freewater, and most of the town of 7,000 was at Liberty to see the Pioneers finish the job, it seemed.
“I would like to thank our community,” Coach Garcia said. “There was so much support.”
Westside Christian finished 16-2 on the year. The team made history by winning a District title for the first time and making a first state title appearance.
Sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the opponent. No one was beating McLoughlin on this day.
“I’m proud of my team and the effort we put in this year, “Wong said. “I think we could have played better, but they were a fantastic team and deserved the win.”