Felipe Rueda (10), flanked by Noah Kim (4) and Elijah Widdows, takes a victory lap after netting the insurance goal for CG
Felipe Rueda (10), flanked by Noah Kim (4) and Elijah Widdows, takes a victory lap after netting the insurance goal for CG

Catlin Gabel head coach Peter Shulman was uneasy before Saturday afternoon’s OSAA / OnPoint Community Credit Union 3A/2A/1A boys soccer final versus league rival Oregon Episcopal School. His Eagles not only came into the match 18-0; they had not trailed at any point in the season.

“I feel like you have to have your heart broken to be able to know what it feels like,” he explained. “It’s pretty rare to go all the way without it.”

Catlin Gabel’s heart did not break but it suffered a crack before two beautiful second-half goals lifted the Eagles to the 3-1 win and a repeat title.

Oregon Episcopal School suffered two 3-0 defeats at the hands of Catlin Gabel during the season, but the Aardvarks did not play like underdogs in the opening 10 minutes of the match, contested in overcast, windless conditions at Liberty High School in Hillsboro. Alex Ugas forced Eagle keeper Bowen Blair to make a save in the match’s opening minute, Jonah Song used his size and strength to be a threat in the box and OES played with energy and commitment despite missing two injured starters from its back four: junior Evan Hasson and senior Mason Lee, who fractured his ankle in a freak occurrence this week at practice.

“I could not be more proud of how these guys rallied around the injuries,” said OES coach David Rosenberg. “The team adopted the ‘next man up philosophy’ and everyone stepped up. They came in here with a great attitude and I’m so, so proud with how they carried themselves.”

Because OES had the run of play early, the first goal, scored by Catlin Gabel, was both sudden and unexpected. In the 13th minute, Finn Russell threw the ball in, in the direction of Felipe Rueda, but the ball instead found the foot of OES midfielder Patrick Ruoff. Rueda, who had a team-high 30 goals coming in, was able to strip the ball, take one dribble right and blast a shot from 26 yards out that knuckled past goalie Alex Colleran into the upper left part of the goal.

“He was turning; I shook the ball off him,” Rueda explained. “I saw the keeper was out and just shot. I knew it was going in. It was a great moment.”

OES responded to the adversity by redoubling its efforts on the offensive end. With Joshua Hamlett and Cai Fernandez-Powell forming a wall in front of Blair, Catlin Gabel’s defense, which had yielded just five goals all season, none in the playoffs, was equal to the task.

“The secret sauce with this team, the back line is excellent,” said Shulman.

In the 19th minute, however, the dreaded crack appeared. Jonathan Segal made a determined run through the heart of the Catlin Gabel defense and muscled the ball past the keeper Bowen. Kennedy Balandi, OES’s leading goal scorer, collected the bouncing ball and banged it into the open goal, knotting the game at 1-1.

“OES tying us was the big gut check,” said Shulman. How would his Eagles respond?

The rest of the half was played end to end with Catlin Gabel having a few more scoring opportunities. Connor Mansfield and James Lawliss, along with Colleran, did a nice job of denying the Eagles for the rest of the half.

“I thought 1-1 was a deserved first half result,” said Shulman. “I thought OES played very well. They had some injured kids and really had to step up. It took us a while to get our level. We didn’t play very well in the first half. We got a great goal from Felipe then let down our guard a little bit and Jonny split our guys and Kennedy finished it off. Well deserved.”

The second half started with Catlin Gabel in attack mode. Three minutes in Rueda scored on a rebound but the goal was disallowed due to offsides. Two minutes later, midfielder Evan Karp set up Jed Whalen-Stewart, but his shot sailed well over the crossbar. Two minutes after that, Hamlett’s great cross to Rueda earned the Eagles a corner kick. Spud Ward had a nice left-footed strike but Mateo Sufuentes could not put any power behind his shot and Colleran made the easy save.

Shulman was happy with what he was seeing from his team.

“OES was going to come ready to play [in the second half],” he said. “OES is a super well-coached team and those kids work very, very hard. We needed to work a little bit harder and settle down.”

Ten minutes into the second half, Catlin Gabel’s hard work paid dividends. Rueda settled a ball near the top of the box and delivered a sweet pass to Ward, whose right-footed skimmer from 18 yards grazed the right post before taking a turn into the back of the net.

“Spud had a great finish,” said Rueda. “I did the easy part getting him the ball and he finished it well.”

“Spud is a left-footed kid but I’ve encouraged him all year to use his very strong right,” added Shulman. “He drilled it. He’s a big game player. He makes a difference every big game.”

Now down by one goal, Oregon Episcopal had several opportunities to net the equalizer, none better than the set piece from 26 yards out following a high kick call on Catlin Gabel. Lawliss delivered a great ball to the head of Segal all alone about eight yards out but his flick went wide of the goal. Midway through the second half, another free kick, taken by Ruoff, just missed Balandi’s head at the far post.

In the 67th minute, Catlin Gabel delivered the dagger. Rueda came back into the game and immediately made something happen. Whalen-Stewart delivered a terrific pass to the sophomore striker and he one-timed it from a challenging angle into the upper part of the far goal.

“We practiced that ball yesterday in practice,” said Rueda. “I got a great ball from Jed. I normally cross that ball but I thought, ‘I’m just going to shoot to see what happens’ and it went in.”

The rest of the physical match was largely uneventful. Rueda had a shot at the hat trick with eight minutes remaining, but he could not direct Ward’s cross towards the net with his head. Catlin Gabel was able to clear its bench late, allowing everyone the opportunity to contribute in the last match of a perfect season.

“I thought we played really, really well in the second half,” said Shulman.

“A different day the outcome could have been different,” said Rosenberg. “Credit to them. Rueda had two amazing strikes, two amazing goals. They capitalized on their opportunities.”

“It was a great season,” said Rueda. “We came here with a mission and got the job done.”