PENDLETON — The Pendleton boys soccer team walked off the field on Tuesday evening with big smiles on their faces, something that’s been a rarity for the struggling Buckaroos program.
The Buckaroos played perhaps their best game of the season and it came against their rival Hermiston, a team that has beat up on them over the past seven-plus years, and earned a 1-1 draw. The game snapped a 15-game losing streak to the Bulldogs, dating back to a 4-3 win over Hermiston on Sept. 15, 2009.
“This feels really good,” said Pendleton senior Nick Oja, who scored the Buckaroos’ lone goal. “I just feel grateful for my team, my coach and the crowd out here cheering tonight, it just feels good.”
Pendleton (1-7-1 overall, 0-2-1 CRC) went after Hermiston (6-3-2, 1-0-2) with a physical defensive approach to try and slow down the fast-paced Bulldogs offense. It worked for much of the game, as the Bulldogs could rarely work into a quality scoring opportunity without a Buckaroo defender stealing the ball or getting a body on a pass.
“We definitely wanted to slow them down because we know they’re an oustanding team in the state,” Pendleton coach Jeremy Talbot said. “Our focus was definitely defense first, because defense can lead to some good offense.”
The Buckaroos’ defense held tight throughout the entirety of the first half and for most of the second, until Hermiston finally broke the scoreless draw with 17 minutes remaining in the game with a controversial goal.
Hermiston’s Mark Mejia lined up near the corner left of Pendleton’s goal for a throw-in, finding Joel Mendez just in front of him. As Mendez settled the ball, his left hand appeared to make contact with the ball prior to sending a cross in front of the net which Noe Silva buried in the net for a 1-0 lead.
At the time, it seemed like the goal was a game-sealer. However, Pendleton was not ready to quit this time, something that has plagued the team for awhile.
“In the past when we’ve had that kind of adversity, we’ve folded,” Talbot said. “But with the experience they’re getting lately, they’re learning to fight trhough the adversity and trust that we’re going to have an opportunity if we stick to the plan.”
And Pendleton fought back, and just seven minutes later, senior Nick Oja sent a booming kick from just outside the top, left corner of the box and beat Hermiston goalkeeper Juan Navarrete to the far corner to tie the game at 1-1.
“I was playing possession and I think I was covered on the left and right,” Oja recalled, “but not the center. I saw the goalie was a little on the shorter side of the net so I sent it longways over hoping he wouldn’t be able to get there in time to the top right corner, and it worked. I don’t really remember after that, it was kind of like seeing stars.”
Hermiston had a few prime chances to take the advantage back, but just could not cash in. Joel Mendez had perhaps the two best chances, with a shot from 10 yards out that was punched away by Pendleton goalkeeper Andrew Wolotira, and then sailed one high over the net with six minutes left. Hermiston finished with 10 shots on goal to Pendleton’s five.
Hermiston coach Rich Harshberger was clearly frustrated with the result afterwards, especially knowing how close his team was to punching home a few more goals.
“It’s incredibly frustrating. I don’t chalk it up wholly to luck, but I chalk it up to the fact that we didn’t have enough of those opportunities,” he said. “We should’ve had more opportunities so that one or two more would’ve fallen in if we could’ve tested their goalkeeper more than we did.”
Hermiston will look to get things straightened out on Thursday when it travels to The Dalles. The Buckaroos will also hit the road, traveling to Hood River to take on an Eagles team that handed them a 9-0 loss earlier in the year. But the Bucks are hoping Tuesday’s game can give the team something to build on and maybe pull off another stunning game.
“We’re learning that we can compete with anybody,” Talbot said. “The way to build on it is we keep working and stay consistent, don’t get too high or don’t get too low. The guys are working hard in practice and it’s sticking. We’re not winning every game, but we’re competitive in every game and we’re starting to believe that we can do it.”
Contact Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0839. Follow him on Twitter @ByEricSinger.