The Liberal Redskins boys soccer team is chasing a Cinderella story again. After five regular season losses last year Liberal dominated the postseason and took home the 5A state title. In 2012 they have a little more adversity but are on the right track. With eight regular season losses behind them, the Skins defeated Hays in the first round of the regional tournament 2-0.
“I think today we really played as a team,” said Liberal head coach Lori Navarro. “We hustled and everybody gave 110 percent. There wasn’t anybody out here today that didn’t want this game as bad as the coaching staff and the bench. They wanted this game and any time you want a game bad enough you are going to get it.”
Hays came to Liberal as the No. 9 seed with a 6-8-2 record. Liberal was the No. 8 seed with a 7-8-1 record. Both teams knew it was going to be a battle. The first half was slow with neither team scoring. Although Liberal maintained a majority of the possession, the Skins would not break through until later in the second half. A motivational halftime speech was in order from Navarro.
“After we played the first half Coach told us, ‘What’s wrong with you guys? You know you’ve got to pick it up!’ And I think that really opened our eyes and we really picked it up,” said senior midfielder Jesus Mendez. “We knew what we had to do in the second half to win this game.”
The Skins came out as a new team, awakened by their coach’s passion.
“We started flat footed in the first half and we didn’t finish some easy shots that we should have finished,” said Navarro. “I think we came out fighting in the second half. I mean in these games the loser goes home. We’re not ready to go home yet.”
Liberal kept the ball on Hays’ side of the turf a majority of the second half. Five minutes into the half the Skins got their first break. Mendez connected on a perfect pass to the center of the field. Hays goalkeeper Joshua Johnson dove to make the block but ran into the goal post as the ball crossed the plane. It bounced off his leg and back into the open field. Although he argued the goal, the referee confirmed the score. Liberal took the lead 1-0 with a lot of time left.
“Me and Pedro have something special going on,” Mendez said. “Every time he throws it in I use my special hops I guess to connect with the ball. I mean I always want the ball and coach always tells me that I’m a winner so that gives me the confidence to want the ball.”
Hays and Liberal got their opportunities to convert but couldn’t. With 5:04 left in the game Liberal’s patience paid off. Junior midfielder Jason Rios juked out two Hays defenders as he sprinted from the near side to far side of the field. He connected with a cross shot to the near side of the goal and passed through the fingertips of the Hays goalie. Liberal stayed ahead 2-0.
“I had some opportunities that I missed early in the game but I knew with God’s will He would let me break through and put one in,” Rios said.
Liberal continued to dominated and shut out Hays 2-0 as the buzzer rang.
“We hope that we can pick up from this momentum and continue to play hard because that is what it is going to take in these playoffs,” Navarro said. “You know, everybody wants to go to state and we know what that’s like. So we know how hard we have to play and it has to be almost a perfect game every time in order to win this year.”
The Skins will need their experience from last year to advance in the playoffs.
“Last year, I mean, yeah, we had five losses and everything but the seniors last year decided to group up and talk to us about what it takes to win and we all decided to pick our game up together,” Mendez said. “This year, I mean, we do have eight losses, but up to this point we have done the same thing over. We gathered up and we talked with the team to play with our hearts out. We have to bring our experience from last year to this year.”
Liberal will take this win and travel to No. 1 seed Salina Central’s pitch. A win on Central’s home turf will be their 2012 glass slipper and Navarro knows it will not be easy. The Skins will need two things to emerge victorious.
“Well first of all momentum, but secondly belief and faith in God,” Navarro said. “You have to go out there and just play hard. Salina Central is a great team. We played them this summer and they were amazing. We know they didn’t lose any players from last year so we know there is a revenge factor coming already to us. But again we have the experience and with heart anything is possible. We just have to go out there and play hard and be smart about everything that we do.”