LINCOLN CITY — Undefeated with a lightning-fast ground game of dazzling passes and in-your-face defense, the No. 4-ranked Taft Tiger boys’ soccer team will play the No. 15 Delphian Dragons for their 3A/2A/1A league championship Saturday at Salem Academy.
It has been a Sherman-esque march to the final game of the season, with Taft (14-0) routing all their opponents except Dayton. In that Sept. 25 match, OSAA rules overturned Taft’s only defeat, 0-2, after Dayton forfeited its first eight games over an ineligible-player violation. The Tigers avenged the unrecorded loss beating the Pirates 7-4 on Oct. 18.
“That was a high-intensity game to the last,” recalled head coach Ryan Ulicini, who grew up playing forward in the city leagues of Chicago. “They know how to play us.”
Not many others do, however, including lopsided wins over Salem Academy (Sept. 12, 20-0) and Gervais (Oct. 2, 18-0), and decisive contests over powerhouses Delphian (Oct. 4, 3-1) and Western Christian (Oct. 23, 2-1).
Ulicini took over the Tigers last year and steered the team to a 9-5-4 season and 14th place in state. Taft’s previous apex season was 2017, when the Tigers finished in second place in the state with a 13-3-2 record.
“It’s always difficult when you take over a program and have new ideas and ways of running things, but luckily these kids trusted me,” said Ulicini, who coached in Pendleton before moving to the coast with his wife of 0years, Terena. “With these guys, you keep throwing things to challenge them and they seem to eat it up.”
One of the key adjustments he introduced was a unifying ground game.
“This was an attack-minded team that didn’t seem to have any structure for the back line, so we integrated them through passing, simple as it is,” commented Ulicini. “You get them to stop facing forward and turn around and look at the pass backwards. Suddenly, they notice space, and instead of three guys standing in front of you, you have only teammates standing behind you.”
The strategy is amplified by an experienced team that lost only two seniors to graduation last year. Leading the team in scoring is senior Edson Fuentes, who has nailed 36 goals and 10 assists this year.
“His goal-making is fantastic,” Ulicini said of the Rotary Athlete of the Month, two years in a row. “He can move off the ball at speed and take the shots.”
Other players use their familiarity to advantage, such as the telepathic teamwork of center William Caulderon and junior midfielder Jose Florres.
“Those two are inseparable, and once you get them running down the field anything is possible,” Ulicini obserbed.
Whereas the early Taft soccer teams were comprised of kids who played the game three months out of the year, the new Tiger player is a year-round soccer athlete.
“This team is unrecognizable from the ones I played on,” asserted assistant coach Dayton Mays, a Taft alum and defensive specialist who trains players to aggressively “body up,” or go for the ball. “These kids have been playing together since they were five or six. It’s a much better team.”
It’s a rock ‘em, sock ‘em style of soccer that has energized crowds and cowed the competition.
“With its fantastic speed, this team is fun to watch,” said Ulicini. “We’re not much of a chip-the-ball-off-the-head team. We’re not aerialists. We put the ball on the ground and pass it into space.”
Saturday’s league final will begin at 12:30 p.m.