Estancia High senior Abarham Cortez has been stepping up lately for the Eagles boys' soccer team.
In three CIF Southern Section Division 5 playoff games, Cortez has three goals.
On Tuesday evening at Jim Scott Stadium, he also had an 18th birthday that he won't soon forget. It featured a cold ice water bath courtesy of his teammates, but Cortez didn't mind.
Cortez scored the game-winning goal in the 64th minute as the Eagles upset No. 3-seeded Apple Valley Granite Hills, 2-1, in a Division 5 second-round match.
Estancia (15-5-5) is in the quarterfinals for the first time in four years, and also the first time under head coach Robert Castellano. The Eagles play at Los Angeles Windward on Thursday.
Windward, the third-place finisher from the Alpha League, defeated Garden Grove, 4-2, in another second-round match Tuesday.
Estancia, which finished third in the Orange Coast League and had to play a wild-card game, came into the playoffs with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. Now the Eagles are just three wins away from the second CIF title in program history.
"We went down for a bit toward the end of our [regular] season," said Cortez, who also scored the game-winning goal in Estancia's first-round win at Desert Mirage. "It got me kind of mad, and that kind of encouraged me to pick it up more in the next games."
Cortez did so in the second half, taking the cross from the right from sophomore midfielder Chris Moya and putting the ball away. People in the crowd sang "Happy birthday" to Cortez after he scored, and he waved his arms up and down.
The goal gave Estancia momentum back, momentum the Eagles lost after Granite Hills evened the score in the 50th minute on Danny Carvajal's perfect free kick from 40 yards out. Carvajal angled the kick into the upper part of the net, just past the fingertips of Estancia goalie Enrique Valle.
"I told the guys at halftime, 'Don't come out flat in the second half,'" Castellano said. "I don't think we came out flat, but we weren't as sharp as we were in the first half. The momentum swung their way after the goal for a little bit, but the kids didn't panic. I got a little frustrated, but the kids kind of gave me a lesson tonight. They were pretty calm, and they were positive after [Granite Hills] scored. They picked each other up, they picked up Enrique, he shook it off and we were fine in the second half."
Estancia dominated scoring opportunities in the first half, and it paid off in the 31st minute. A varsity call-up for CIF, freshman Daniel Segura, made his presence felt. Segura went after a deflected shot, colliding with the goalie in the box. Senior Jesus Acevedo was there to clean up the mess, scoring on a header and giving the hosts the lead.
The game was physical. Estancia sophomore forward Kevin Pizarro was taken down at least three times on the night, and senior defender Carlos Herrera was taken off in a cart late in the first half. Castellano said that Herrera tweaked his ankle.
Granite Hills junior Jacob Padilla went off limping late in stoppage time after falling in the box. Cougars Coach Paul Casarez screamed for a foul call, but didn't get it.
Casarez, who led Granite Hills (17-5-4) to the Desert Sky League championship, was critical of the referees after the game.
"They're a great team, we already knew," Casarez said of Estancia. "They're in the toughest [league] in Division 5, so I know that they see a lot of good competition through the year. We expected a hard, physical game. What we don't expect is to come here and have the same referees from the same area, [who] allow them to play physical. We don't get any calls, then we match up and do the same thing, and it's call after call after call for them. They flopped everywhere to take off time and the referees were fooled ... it's dumb. [Padilla] is off on the sidelines hurt, where their [hurt] players get up and they play, but he gives them the call. It's home-field advantage, but in the playoffs I expect it to be a better [refereed] game."
Castellano said that although his team was familiar with the referees, he thought that they were fair.
"I think frustration kind of took over them," he said. "Maybe if I was on [Casarez's] side, maybe I would say the same thing."
Castellano did not have to say much else. His team is in the quarterfinals, though the Eagles will have to hit the road Thursday to play a team that they don't know too much about.
What the "Águilas" know about their team is that they have heart.
"We work well together," Cortez said. "We're hard-working, and it pays off."