COSTA MESA — There are two parts to Wilson Elementary Coach Eddie Ceja's game plan. The first: Get the lead. The second: Defend said lead.
One proved easier than the other in the Daily Pilot Cup youth soccer tournament's boys' fifth- and sixth-grade gold division final Sunday at the Jack Hammett Sports Complex. But Ceja's Wildcats managed to achieve both, defeating Newport Heights, 2-1, to claim the school's first title in this division.
The win avenged a 3-2 loss to Newport Heights in Tuesday's pool-play opener and capped a wild two-game day for the Wildcats, who won their semifinal, 6-4, earlier Sunday against Harbor Day.
Wilson came out blasting in the final as Rafael Espinoza, Miguel Peña and Rafael Leyva consistently worked their way past, around and through the Newport Heights defense to help produce an 11-1 shot advantage through the first 25-minute half.
"They link together some incredible passing," Newport Heights Coach Matt Adelsohn said of the Wildcats. "We beat them once, catching them early in pool play. But they had our number coming into the final."
Espinoza finally converted in the 20th minute, dribbling down the middle of the field and ripping a shot into the top of the goal.
Just four minutes later, Leyva banged in a rebound after Newport Heights goalkeeper Ethan Barnes turned away a shot from Peña, and the ball bounded back out into the 18-yard box.
Protecting a lead against Newport Heights, however, was problematic Sunday.
The Sharks erased a 2-0 deficit against Mariners to earn a 3-2 semifinal win that included two goals from Sam Barella.
In the final, Newport Heights appeared bent on pulling off another comeback, as it posted a 12-8 shot advantage. The Sharks, a team of exclusively sixth-graders who last year as fifth-graders won the fifth- and sixth-grade silver division title, got on the scoreboard in the 42nd minute when Cameron Harper scored on a set piece.
The goal by Harper, a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy Youth Academy program, escalated the already energetic cheering from the Newport Heights sideline. On the other sideline, it had a more chilling effect.
"It was nerve-wracking," said Ceja, who along with the Wilson rooters had to sweat out the final moments as Newport Heights anxiously attacked the goal.
"We've had a couple of games like that when we've been behind," Adelsohn said. "But this team comes back from being down really well, better than any team I've ever seen."
In the 45th minute, Harper, a dervish of a dribbler whose quickness and skill makes him impossible to mark, boomed a shot that was deflected by a defender in front.
Seconds later, Ethan Schroeder, one of the few Sharks players who compete in club soccer, or any organized soccer for that matter, bent a shot toward the goal that sailed just wide.
Moments later, Harper sent a cross toward a teammate perched just outside the left goal post, who whiffed on the shot attempt.
A subsequent cross by Harper hit a Newport Heights attacker in the midriff and it dropped and bounded out of range for the attacker to get either foot on it.
Even the opportunities that produced quality shots were turned away by goalkeeper Victor Jacinto. Jacinto, who also had a knack for bursting off his line to snatch corner kicks and crosses between the goal posts, made the save of the day on a shot by Schroeder. Just as the ball appeared headed toward the upper portion of the goal, Jacinto raised his left hand to punch the ball toward the sky. He then retrieved it before it could cross the goal line, prompting a collective sigh from those along the Newport Heights sideline.
Peña is also a member of the Galaxy Academy program, said Ceja, who received strong defensive work from Uriel Tapia and Christopher Juarez.
Additional contributors for the winners were Omar Rodriguez, Omar Martinez, Chris Ramirez, Andy Herrera, Leo Ramirez, Leo Martinez, Miguel Avelino and Ronny Cahuantzi.
In addition to offensive catalysts Harper and Schroeder, Zander Adelsohn displayed some deft and determined ball control and defense for the Sharks.
Barnes, one of the Sharks whose only organized soccer occurs annually in the Pilot Cup, finished with six saves, while stopper Dane Chalmers, who also toils at soccer only as a hobby, was singled out by Matt Adelsohn for his consistently sterling play.
Nicholas Browning was also noticeable on defense, while Barella, Liam Rosten, Luke Downing, Anthony Rath, Garrett Gritzmacher, Sam Baker and Michael Richards also chipped in for Newport Heights.