Taft champs play today

The 2019 league champion Taft Tigers boys soccer team includes Sam Cortes, Riley Ellis, Ivan Cortez, Jose Flores, J.J. Lupercio, Kevin Acosta, Sammy Vasquez, Edson Fuentes, William Calderon, Joseph Cruz, Estib Hernandez, Alex Del Valle, Angel Isias, Adrian Moreno, Diego Gomez, Mauricio Rivas, Kaden Wright and Matias Vesma. Coaches are Ryan Ulicni, Daniel Haehl and Dayton Mays. (Photos by Rick Beasley)

LINCOLN CITY — The undefeated Taft High School boys’ soccer team has won so many games — 15 straight, not counting an opponent’s forfeit — that they make a bookie’s job look easy.

But all bets are off as the No. 4-ranked Tigers enter their first round of state playoffs today (Wednesday) against shadowy No. 18 Central Linn, at home. Game time is 5 p.m.

“We haven’t heard anything about Central Linn,” worried coach Ryan Ulicni at practice on Monday, reigning in his enthusiastic charges to avoid last-minute injuries and considering the dangers of an unfamiliar opponent. “They’ve won some and lost some. They can score and be scored on. Whatever they are, we have to play our game and not conform to theirs.”

It’s a strategy that has paid off for the 2019 Tigers, who use a powerful run-and-gun ground game that emphasizes backfield passing. Employing the telepathic familiarity of seasoned players who have been together since grade school, the Tigers have polished their record with decisive wins over powerhouse teams — often with lopsided scores, like the 19-0 drubbing of Gervais Oct. 2.

What is known about Central Linn (8-3-4, 6-2-4 league) is that the Cobras are dangerous, splitting games with league champ, No. 15 Santiam Christian (11-2-1, 9-2-1 league), before settling for second place.

The contest comes after a close brush for the league title last Saturday in Salem against No. 16 Delphian (10-5-2, 9-3-2 league), typical of the poised private-school opponents that have dominated the 3A/2A/1A soccer ranks for a decade.

While Taft prevailed 3-0, the Dragons threatened to reverse Tiger gains throughout the contest.

“We won, but it was dead-even most of the match,” recalled Ulicni.

Taft broke the ice late in the first half with a penalty kick by William Calderon after Mauricio Rivas drew a foul — a nice payoff earned in the practice trench.

“We practiced PKs earlier in the week knowing it could come down to this, and it did,” reflected Ulicni.

In the second stretch, Delphian, who scored against Taft in two previous games (both 3-1 victories for the Tigers), returned to the field full of fire.

“They came out hungry,” said Ulicni. “They were raining down shots like marbles on a tin roof, like nothing I’d seen before, which usually brings some frustration with our guys. But they held it down until we were finally able to break through with some skilled passing.”

Edson Fuentes scored a “fantastic” goal after dancing his way around a defender while Caulderon cleaned-up a fur ball in the box for the final point.

“We showed a lot of improvement by holding them scoreless,” concluded Ulicni. “If each guy does the work equally to make a great team effort, there’s nobody these guys can’t beat.”

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