Saying “this is what soccer is supposed to look like,” Taft High Coach Ryan Ulicni’s boys squad proved “nothing short of spectacular” in a 1-1 league home tie Thursday with Western Christian.
While William Brooks, Jacob Mayoral and Genaro Flores bid farewell to the home crowd on Senior Night at Voris Field, Coach Joey Arce-Torres’ girls squad fell 3-0 to Western Christian in the swan song for Lydia Prins, Ana Ortiz and Melody Diggs.
The six departing seniors left an indelible mark on the school’s soccer programs and in making their teammates better, their respective coaches said.
“When you see how far they have improved, performing like this towards the end of the season is how it should be,” Ulicni said. “The leadership, the camaraderie, the never-give-up attitude makes these boys winners.”
It was Taft’s tri-captains — William Brooks, William Calderon and Edson Fuentes — who again took charge of the game.
“Knowing this would be our toughest competition, these boys mentally prepared themselves to take their play to the next level,” Ulicni said. “Matching Western’s size with our speed made for a great back-and-forth game.”
Taft’s boys improved to 6-3-4 overall and 5-3-4 in Class 3A/2A/1A Special District 2 play with the tie as they battle their way to potential postseason play. Western Christian stands 7-3-3, 7-2-3.
“Falling behind by a goal in the first half, we never gave up or let off the pace,” Ulicni said. “Taking it to them right off the start of the second half, I feel like we controlled the game.”
Creating multiple opportunities led to Alex De Valle scoring following some “fantastic individual skill” off a pass from fellow sophomore Calderon. Calderon took 10 of Taft’s 17 shots on goal.
“Defensively, our team came together, shutting down most of the opposing height with great teamwork and great leadership from senior captain William Brooks,” Ulicni said. “Chalking up 10 saves for the night, he was able to walk away with his head up and proud of the team’s effort.”
Meanwhile, Arce-Torres said he found solace in the girls’ effort despite its shutout defeat.
“We played a well-defended match,” he said. “We kept one of the strongest teams scoreless for the entire first half.”
Arce-Torres said his team received solid play from freshmen Jaelyn Olmeda and Chloe Peterson, and seniors Ortiz and Prins.
“We truly frustrated Western and kept the pressure off our goalkeeper,” he said. “I really thought we had this one. The kids were fired up for Senior Night and we were on top of our game.”
Western came out more physical in the second half and “broke our spirit” with a second goal “on a laser and a well-placed hit,” Arce-Torres said. “Those kind of shots you just tip your hat to and say well done.”
Western Christian added a goal with about 30 seconds remaining in the match to improve to 8-3-2 overall and 7-2-1 in SD2 play, while the Tigers fell to 2-9-2, 2-8-2.
“It felt much like our match against powerful Dayton, but without a goal,” he said. “We did many good things, but just not enough to pull out a win.”
The veteran Taft coach expressed excitement about expanding his program next season.
“All athletes played, and that’s difficult to do when you have 22 kids suiting up,” he said. “We’re looking forward to having a JV program next year so we can give more minutes to every athlete and compete with more experienced individuals.”
Arce-Torres, who lost nine seniors entering this season, said he will miss the three upperclassmen graduating this year.
“It’s sad to lose our seniors, especially Lid and Ana — both were four-year starters,” he said. “They have elevated our program with their passion and dedication. I am humbled by the composure and leadership they have provided.”
Both Taft soccer squads will conclude their regular season with two league road matches next week.