Four times since 2014, Stayton's boys soccer season ended with losses in the 4A final, three times by one goal.
So when the Eagles emerged as the winner of the season-ending 4A Elite 8 Showcase by defeating Phoenix 4-1 on Saturday at Sutherlin High School, they were ready to claim the state's highest perch.
“I felt like the best eight teams were in it, for sure,” said Stayton coach Chris Shields, who led the Eagles to their only state title in 2010. “”Having to go through those three teams felt like vindication for it. It definitely feels like we have worked and earned it. At the end of the day, we ran the table.”
The top-seeded Eagles (12-0) survived three games in five days to finish first. They defeated No. 8 Marshfield 5-1 in the first round and No. 4 Ontario 1-0 in the semifinals before stopping No. 3 Phoenix in the final.
Juniors Jayden Esparza and Santos Navarro and freshman Riley Burns scored goals and senior Carlos Gomez, Stayton's goalkeeper, converted a penalty kick as the Eagles dominated the Pirates (10-2). Stayton led 3-0 at half and pushed its edge to 4-0 before yielding a late penalty kick.
Esparza had five goals in the three matches to finish the season with 13 goals. He had a hat trick against Marshfield and scored the match's only goal against Ontario.
“He was the reason why we're there,” Shields said of Esparza. “He's the best offensive player I've coached, and I've coached some pretty good ones. He's a difference-maker.”
The comfortable first-round win over Marshfield was key in that it allowed many of the Eagles' key players to rest their legs.
“That helped us in that three-game bonanza,” Shields said. “Guys didn't have to play three full matches.”
The Ontario match was a narrow escape for the Eagles. Senior Julian Flores, who scored a team-high 15 goals this season, did not make the trip to Bend for the match for personal reasons. And the extra-wide field at the Bend FC Timbers facility “kind of threw both teams off,” according to Shields.
But Esparza scored the game's lone goal midway through the second half. He took a pass from Navarro, controlled the ball, kept a defender pinned behind his left shoulder, sidestepped the center defender, moved inside the goal box and buried a shot inside the far post.
Shields said the team will take about a month off beginning preparations for the fall season.
“Losing six starters will be tough,” Shields said. “We're going to take a little bit of a step back, but it also depends on how much of a step up that some of these younger players want to make. We have a lot of young players that are very, very gifted.”
North Marion got payback for the 2019 playoffs and survived two penalty-kick shootouts to win the girls 4A Elite 8 Showcase.
In the opening round, senior Mya Hammack scored three goals as the Huskies beat reigning 4A champion Woodburn 3-2. The result avenged a 3-1 loss to the Bulldogs in the 2019 semifinals.
North Marion tied Philomath 1-1 in the semifinals Thursday and Marist Catholic 1-1 in the final Saturday, but won both matches in shootouts, 4-2 and 6-5, respectively.
Coach Ben Bonser said his team showed resilience under pressure in the penalty kicks, a factor that he traced back to when the Huskies were eliminated from the first round of the 2018 playoffs in a shootout loss to La Grande.
“That was a big piece of being mentally prepared for having a shootout in the future,” Bonser said. “It's always something we've tried to prepare for. You don't want to go there, but you want to be ready when it comes.”
Third-seeded North Marion (11-1), which has never won a state title, savored winning the tournament. It was especially gratifying for the five senior captains – Hammack, Hailey Welch, Katie Zapata, Carter Crawford and Danielle Christenson – who were four-year starters.
“It feels like a great reward for the culmination of all the work these girls have put in the last four years,” Bonser said. “They've been pushing for this every year.”
The Huskies took down top-seeded Marist Catholic on Saturday at Crescent Valley High School. The Spartans (9-3) took a 1-0 lead on a goal by junior Madison Fuller but Hammack countered shortly after to make it 1-1 at half.
In the shootout, the Huskies got goals from Hammack, Hailey Welch, junior Dominique Huapeo, junior Teagan Welch, Zapata and sophomore Adrie Lader. Lader's goal clinched the win.
Huapeo got North Marion's only goal against No. 2 Philomath (9-2) in a match at Crescent Valley. Hammack, Hailey Welch, Huapeo and Teagan Welch converted penalty kicks in the shootout.
Hammack scored 29 goals for the season to increase her career total to 89. If not for missing most of her sophomore year with an ankle injury and having to play a shortened season this year, she might have joined the 11 other players in state history in the 100-goal club.