HERMISTON — On Tuesday night, the Hermiston boys soccer team was essentially playing for the league championship. The Bulldogs welcomed the No. 1 Hood River Valley Eagles to Kennison Field for one of its final regular season games, and the outcome would determine who could coast into the playoffs.
It was a battle for the full 80 minutes with the final score being a testament to Hermiston’s ability to play sound ball and Hood River’s skillfulness. The 1-1 draw gives the Eagles (7-2-3 overall, 3-0-2 Columbia River Conference) the top spot in the league, while leaving the Bulldogs (7-3-3, 2-0-3) a little sadder than they should be. But for good reason.
“Tying the No. 1 team in state, usually that’s a win but tonight we know we were the equal of them and the better,” head coach Rich Harshberger said. “That could have easily been our game and that’s okay that they’re upset that we came away with the tie and not the win.”
Understandably, the Bulldogs opened the match with some nerves but after the first 15 or so minutes Hermiston settled into its game plan, the match up was even-keeled.
The Bulldogs knew what to expect, and were already quite familiar with the Eagles’ game, as the two teams faced each other just two weeks ago.
“They are really good at finding players in space,” Harshberger said. “They move the ball really well and find guys feet, and they have a couple of skills guys that really help do that.”
Hood River did just that and got some good looks at the goal in the first half. Later Hermiston had a few chances to take the lead, but they were either too high or just a bit too late, which allowed the Eagles defense set up to make a play. Tough defense and aggressive offense on both sides kept the score at 0-0 going into the break.
But the scoreless draw didn’t last more than three minutes when the teams returned to the field.
Senior Mark Mejia made his way into the box with Hood River defenders at his back. His shot looked soft enough to be stopped by the Eagles’ goalkeeper but instead the ball skirted just passed him into the back right corner of the net and put the Bulldogs up 1-0.
Junior goal keeper Juan Navarrete did his best to keep to score in Hermiston’s favor, but after some miraculous saves one finally got by him.
Hood River scored the equalizer in the 61st minute off a corner kick. The ball was placed almost perfectly inside the box, and after bouncing around senior Saul Chavarria knotted things up.
There was still a lot of soccer left to be played, and plenty of moments for the Bulldogs to retake the lead. Some of their best chances at a goal, however, where met with hesitation.
“It’s something we’ve been working on all season — getting the ball off our foot a little quicker, especially in the attacking third,” Harshberger said. “It kind of bit us a little bit tonight, but we still had some really good opportunities and I would almost argue more better opportunities than Hood River.”
The fast pace of play and pressure took a toll, and near the end it looked as if it began to wear on some. But Hermiston never stopped fighting, which ultimately ended in the ejection of Mejia. The captain was shown his second yellow card with a little under five minutes left to play, and had to leave the game and leave Hermiston down to only 10 players.
The Bulldogs made one final push without one of its leaders, and just missed the goal with two minutes left of play.
Although the outcome of Tuesday night was the same as the previous between the Bulldogs and Eagles, Harshberger finds solace in the fact that Hermiston played a complete game, and it doesn’t stop there.
“This sets the tone for how we end the season, this is our farewell tour of the OSAA,” he said. “We lost our chance at the district title tonight, but there’s still more to play for — there’s so much more to play for this season. That’s the focus.”
Hermiston will host Pendleton for its final regular season game of the year, and the final match up between the two rivals. Ten seniors will be honored before the 7 p.m. kickoff.
Contact Alexis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4542. Follow her on Twitter @almansanarez.