The Kennewick boys soccer team has been all about building respect over the last several seasons.
Last year, the Lions earned their first state berth in 19 years and contended for the CBBN title. This year they went a bit further, winning the Mid-Columbia Conference championship — their first league title since 1989.
The only question now is: How far can they go?
Kennewick (16-3) took another big step Tuesday with its first state victory, a 3-2 win over Enumclaw in the first round of the Class 3A state tournament. The Lions broke a 1-1 tie with second-half goals from Daniel Uribe and Miguel Lopez, setting up a quarterfinal matchup against a familiar opponent.
The Lions’ next game will be against the Hanford Falcons (14-6), an MCC rival also bent on building respect after missing the playoffs entirely for the last four seasons. Kennewick swept their two regular-season matches — 2-1 and 1-0 — but that reveals little about the upcoming matchup, scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday at Lampson Stadium.
The nature of playoff soccer uncovers a much deeper sense of urgency.
“I know that (Hanford) coach (Mike) Pardini is having a phenomenal season, and we have the utmost respect for them,” Lions coach Brian Gochoel said. “We’re going to have to be at our best.”
Saturday will be the first time since 1999 that a 3A or 4A boys team from the Tri-Cities faced a league opponent with a state semifinal soccer berth on the line. Pasco beat Big Nine rival Eisenhower 4-2 in the 1999 4A quarterfinals before going on to win the state title.
Pardini was a member of that Pasco team, and he appreciates facing a league rival with such high stakes.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Pardini said. “It means our league is pretty strong, with Richland also rolling through the 4A side. It speaks to the quality of our conference.”
Kennewick got on the board first in the 16th minute, when Sam Borja locked in on Adrian Rojo’s service from the left wing and volleyed it into the left corner of Enumclaw’s net from 20 yards out.
The Lions’ defense, which hadn’t allowed a goal over the previous 609 minutes, gave up a soft one in the 25th minute, when Hogan Olafson’s corner kick got through two defenders at the near post and gave Evan Absolor an open look at the net.
“It was an error. Anyone could make it,” Borja said. “Our defense just needed to talk more, but we worked it out.”
The second half belonged to Kennewick, which outshot the Hornets 18-3 over the final 40 minutes. The Lions were masters of possession, routinely reversing direction and using the back third to move the ball upfield.
“Some teams choose to sit back and defend,” Gochoel said. “We have the capability to (attack). I thought Sam Borja was pretty creative and caused some problems for them in transition. And Adrian (Rojo) has been stepping up.”
Rojo continued his offensive tear after netting a goal in each of Kennewick’s two regional games. On Tuesday, he turned playmaker, collecting two assists on the day.
The Hornets converted in the final minute of regulation to cut the lead to 3-2, but the Lions forced a turnover on Enumclaw’s side of the field and kept the ball there until the end of the game.
Rojo said Enumclaw had a definite size advantage, but the Lions were up to the task.
“They were bigger, and they were more physical. We just played way better,” Rojo said. “It’s pretty exciting. (Kennewick has) never done this before.”
Scoring—1, K, Sam Borja (Adrian Rojo), 16:00; 2, E, Evan Absolor (Hogan Olafson), 25:00; 3, K, Danny Uribe (Rojo), 45:00; 4, K, Miguel Lopez (Edward Granados-Lopez), 73:00; 5, E, Caleb Gwerder (Tyler Koenig), 79:00. Shots—E 11, K 23. Saves—E, Matt Leavens 4. K, Jose Rodriguez 0, Henry Hernandez 1.