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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
Artesia High was staring in the eyes of its first loss in over a month until a pair of juniors, who missed the entire month of December because they were in a club tournament out of the state, came through in the final minutes of regulation and in stoppage time. The end result was a 2-1 victory over Norwalk High last Friday that kept the Pioneers still in first place of the Suburban League at the midway point of the league season.
Two minutes into stoppage time, midfielder Jose Luis Ortiz took a pass from junior midfielder Jorge Pantoja and deposited the game-winner through the left side of the net. Artesia then had to sweat out four more minutes of stoppage time to earn its 11th straight victory in the last 12 games. The Pioneers, who are the fourth-ranked team in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division IV top 10 poll, improved to 14-2-2 overall, 6-0 in the circuit, and have not lost since Dec. 17.
“We’re 5-0 [in league] and when you’re at that point, teams are going to come to play,” said Artesia head coach Rudy Magallon of the game’s preparation. “[Norwalk] is going to come to play hard and they’re going to have energy. We have to match it. All through this year, our team just fights and fights and fights.”
“It’s just the conditioning that…we have three guys who go down with cramps and we replaced three guys right away, and they capitalized quickly on it,” said Norwalk head coach Vinson Pluma. “That’s just the factor; that’s what happened. We basically switched quite a few guys on our team and the communication broke down.”
Norwalk, the defending co-league champions, came out of the gates fast and early and dominated the majority of the first half. Four minutes in, a shot from junior defender Luis Zepeda hit the crossbar. Six minutes later, Artesia senior midfielder Steven Espinoza saw his shot hit the crossbar as well. It was one of five shots the Pioneers took in the first half.
Then in the 10th minute, the Lancers missed a golden chance to go up 1-0 when senior forward Cristian Martinez saw his shot get deflected by Artesia senior goalie Saul Ocampo and the rebound attempt from junior defender Anthony Galicia hit the right post. By halftime, the game remained scoreless with the visitors taking 10 shots, half of them saved by Ocampo.
Still, Pluma said he felt comfortable the whole way because his team closed the passing lanes down and closed the lines between the midfield and defense so that the Pioneers couldn’t get through.
Artesia began to pick up the pace even more very early in the second half when a pass from Pantoja to Ortiz in the 44th minute skipped right through the penalty box with no one there to take a shot on goal. Three minutes later, Ortiz was tripped in the penalty box but no foul was called on the Lancers. Instead, Ortiz was given a yellow card because the referees deemed the fall to the ground not to be legitimate.
Norwalk (6-7-1, 2-4-0) broke the tie in the 59th minute when it took advantage of some shoddy defense and junior defender Miguel Cabrera took a long shot that went above Ocampo’s head, who had ventured out towards the top of the box.
“Even though our record is the way it is, we’re one of the top talented teams on the days we come to play,” Pluma said. “If we come to play, we can take any team out. Now, with our record, we’re going to struggle to get into the playoffs. But the other three teams that we need to beat, we can beat to get to the playoffs.”
Another Pantoja to Ortiz attempt in the 68th minute would go off to the left side of the net but with just two minutes remaining in regulation, the Pioneers got the break they were looking for. Senior forward Jesus Gudino sent a pass to junior forward Francisco Sierra who headed in his fifth goal in league play.
“In the second half it was mostly our game,” Magallon said. “The goal they scored came off of one of our mistakes. But other than that, I thought we had more position of the ball in the second half.”
Since returning back from their club obligations, Ortiz and Sierra have combined for nine of the 14 goals the Pioneers have scored in league action. In December, Artesia scored 22 goals in 12 games.
“They just bring a lot of experience,” Magallon said. “Last year they were sophomores and they started as freshmen with us. Their experience in moments when the game gets tough, I think that’s when they play their best. They don’t panic.”
The Lancers still outshot the Pioneers 16-12 and Ocampo, who entered the game with three straight shutouts, came up big with eight shots. But the story behind the story has been the turnarounds for both teams and for opposite reasons. Last season, the Pioneers started five sophomores and two freshmen and struggled through a 7-11-6 campaign overall and 4-6-2 in league. Magallon missed the postseason for the first time in his coaching career. Meanwhile, Norwalk has gone from a share of first place and a trip to the quarterfinals last season to a tie for fifth place and six points behind third place La Mirada High.
“Every year you think you can push the guys as hard as you did the year before,” Pluma said. “And they may not be ready for it and they might push back. Getting them to believe that they have to work harder in practice is probably one of our issues this year.”
Since Cerritos High joined the league for the 1998-1999 season, Norwalk has won six league titles while Artesia has captured first place five times. In addition, both programs have advanced to the quarterfinals a combined nine times. It’s very likely that Artesia, now two games up on Bellflower High, will return the playoffs but the Lancers are hoping to extend their playoff streak to 11 straight seasons.
And the Artesia-Norwalk rivalry continues to be if not the best in the league, then one of the best with the Pioneers holding a 14-12-10 advantage since 1998. No other league team has defeated the Pioneers more than seven times during the same time while La Mirada High has knocked off Norwalk 12 times in the past 33 meetings.
“We have good talent and we work hard and when the year comes together and the kids believe, good things happen,” Pluma said. “I’m Rudy’s age, so we even go back to knowing the same people. It’s interesting; they are probably one of our best rivals.”
“It depends; it goes year by year,” Magallon said. “Last year we were down and I don’t think you can call it a rivalry. I think a rivalry is when two teams are fighting every year. And I know we’re there and they’re there. Norwalk has some great games with Mayfair and we have some great games with Bellflower or La Mirada. It’s hard to tell.”
Artesia travelled to second place Bellflower this past Wednesday and will go to Mayfair High on Monday before hosting La Mirada on Wednesday. Norwalk hosted Cerritos this past Wednesday and will visit La Mirada today, entertain Bellflower on Monday and travel to Mayfair on Wednesday.
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