For more than a decade, the Liberal soccer program has dominated the Western Athletic Conference. Several players graduated from last year’s state champion Redskin team, leaving the door open for someone else to step into a conference title. Tuesday, Garden City took a huge leap forward with a 2-1 win at Great Bend.
“We came knowing it’s tough to play here,” said Garden City Coach Joaquin Padilla. “We wanted to play our game and see what happened. I thought our game was waiting for them at times to see what they would do, and at other times to pressure.”
The shots were few and far between in the first half as the team defenses excelled, allowing just seven total shots and even fewer attempts on goal. Great Bend (7-3 overall, 3-2 WAC) had the first chance five minutes in taking advantage of a poor Buffalo clearance. Jose Mijares’ shot went wide, and the Panthers would have just one more shot in the opening 40 minutes.
Garden City (7-2, 3-1) picked up an unexpected goal with 27:31 to play when senior midfielder Diego Benitez blasted a free kick from about 40 yards for a goal. The shot beat a sprawling Claudio Sanchez to the right upright, bouncing off the post and in for the 1-0 lead.
“It was a big surprise for us,” said Panther Coach Gus Prieto. “We normally start slow but we control the ball for the first 10 minutes. After that, it was a big surprise on the goal. It was an amazing shot.”
With still few chances from either offense, the Buffaloes again found the back of the net with 18:04 to play in the first half. Sophomore Erik Baarragan’s pass found senior Emilio Castillo who made a long run. Sanchez came far off his line in a last ditch effort to stop Castillo, but the speedy midfielder slipped a shot by the Panther keeper for the 2-0 lead.
“The second goal was our mistake,” Prieto said. “We were not 100 percent and were not focusing on the game and that happens.”
Great Bend had its best chance just three minutes later when Enrique Guyton got the ball just outside the six-yard box. His shot rang off the outside of the upright.
With a two-goal advantage, Garden City dumped nine players on its own half. Great Bend would continuously create problems on that end, outshooting the Buffs 7-4 in the second half, but the defense proved to be too stout.
“They come to defend and are looking for one goal,” said Prieto. “They got lucky. I told the guys if we are not 100 percent in the first minute, sometimes they score an early goal and we cannot come back. In the second half, we had the ball on their side but they have a good goalie and good defenders.”
Mario Espino bent a shot towards the upper 90 but Buffalo keeper Cesar Soloranzo made the save 10 minutes into the new half. Just over a minute later, Guyton got the ball in space but shot it early, sending the ball well-wide of goal.
“I knew they were coming strong the second half and expected it,” Padilla said.
The Panthers continued to get closer. A corner kick with 25:25 to play resulted in two good looks in the box, but Garden City defenders were there to block both attempts before they reached Solorzano. Finally, with 12:42 to play, Great Bend junior Ivan Galindo chipped a shot toward goal from the left side. It appeared to be an easy stop for Solorzano, but the ball slipped through his hand to cut the advantage in half.
Garden City had its best chance of the second half with 2:30 to play when Joel Sanchez took away a Panther throw-in and ran into the box. His shot sailed high over the crossbar.
Great Bend provided great drama in the final 100 seconds. With 1:40 to play, Javier Guerra snuck a shot through a crowded box, missed the net by a mere foot. With 30 ticks left, Guerra found Espino, who lift a shot across the face of the goal, again missing by mere feet.
Garden City is now in the driver’s seat for a conference title, but will have to beat a Liberal team that is responsible for the one WAC loss.
“We just have to stay consistent,” Padilla said. “When we went to Liberal, we out-shot them, we did everything we could. We just didn’t get the score to go our way.”
Great Bend is not out of it either. With only two conference losses and a field of five teams that can win on any given night, the Panthers have to hope for a Buffalo loss.
“We still have a chance,” said Prieto. “I hope we can learn with this loss. We still have a chance and we should be strong for the next games.”