St. Mary’s coach Eisa Tiaa Tutu laughs when he recalls Milan Bobek’s reaction back in August when he learned he would be playing striker for the Crusaders.
“He was kind of surprised, like ‘Striker?’” Tiaa Tutu said of the exchange. “I go, ‘Yeah, don’t worry about it.’”
Nobody’s worried about it now.
A goal-filled regular season in the books, Bobek continued his stellar play in the first round of the OSAA Class 3A/2A/1A state tournament Tuesday, scoring the first goal of the game in a crowded box to kick-start the Cruaders’ 3-0 victory over the De La Salle North Catholic Knights at U.S. Cellular Community Park.
The Crusaders added a penalty kick and a breakaway goal in the second half, then rode some stellar defense to their 12th shutout of the season.
The win advanced the undefeated, third-ranked Crusaders (15-0-1) to the state quarterfinals for the second year in a row, where they will face 11th-ranked Western Christian/Perrydale, a 4-3 upset winner over sixth-ranked Riverdale, on Saturday. It also avenged an Elite Eight overtime loss to the Knights almost exactly a year ago.
“It felt really nice to get one back on them, because they beat us last year in the playoffs,” said Bobek, a junior. “We needed a quick start on them.”
St. Mary’s dominated the time of possession most of the first half and beyond, out-shooting the visitors 25-4 overall, but appeared headed for a scoreless halftime after several near misses. Then in the 35th minute, senior Parker Lam sent a free kick into the box which Knights’ defender Traveon Johnson could only head straight up in a failed clearance attempt. Bobek pounced, striking the ball out of the air directly into a De La Salle defender. The ball ricocheted right back to Bobek, who then teed-up the ball with his left and unloaded with his right, sending a hard, high shot near post that Knights’ keeper Jesus Meza-Murillo could only wave at as he fell to his knees.
“I’m just hoping I can get a foot on for the volley,” Bobek said. “It comes down for the first time and I couldn’t get a foot on it, and then I just took a touch pass and went low.
“We knew that they were definitely going to be a tough challenge. We played them last year obviously, so we knew that they were going to be a tough team and we decided we had to come into the game and couldn’t underestimate anyone this year because everyone can surprise us.”
“In the first game, (Bobek) scored the first goal against Catlin Gabel and after that he just built confidence,” Tiaa Tutu said. “We feed him all the time, and when we come to training we try to emphasize how to take defenders on and how to communicate with other teammates. We have these combinations to get to the box to shoot, and he has a strong foot.”
The Crusaders, who have won 15 straight, had a few more opportunities before halftime but failed to add an insurance goal. On of those near misses, senior Corin Elmore took a pass near the top of the box, crossed over a defender and let fly a rocket toward the far post. Again, Meza-Murrillo was powerless to stop it, but the ball bounced off the post back into play and the Knights (6-6-4), who finished fourth in District 1, were able to clear it.
The District 5-champion Crusaders continued to enforce their will in the second half, creating three solid looks — all off frame — in the first seven minutes, before Bobek uncorked a shot in the 51st that required a diving save by Meza-Murrillo.
Finally, in the 65th, only five minutes after Bobek had to be helped off the turf with a cramping left calf, sophomore Andrew Rietmann sent a cross from about 15 yards out toward a streaking Nathan Sternenberg, who would have had a dynamite look if not for a handball by De La Salle’s last defender.
St. Mary’s put Preston Jernigan on the line for the PK, and the senior faked out Meza-Murrillo with a subtle look left. Meza-Murrillo leaped in that direction as the ball stuffed the net on the opposite side.
“I do this same PK to the right every time,” Jernigan said. “I look left right before, and then shoot and pray. ... A lot of people are scared of pressure, but in all honesty it’s something that really fires me up and gets me going.”
With the shots-on-goal advantage tilting heavily in the Crusaders’ favor, Jernigan’s goal looked like the death blow. But just in case, St. Mary’s added another. This time it was Sternenberg’s turn. The sophomore found himself ahead of everyone and calmly found the back of the net for a 3-0 Crusaders lead.
Though still lopsided by soccer standards, the game represented the most competitive 80 minutes for the Crusaders since they beat Cascade Christian 2-0 on Sept. 26. Between that game and Tuesday’s, St. Mary’s won eight games by a combined score of 75-1.
Tiaa Tutu said it took his team a few minutes to remember what it’s like to face a team that can hang. He was pleased with the response.
“This one kind of gave us this wake-up call,” he said. “Now we’re playing in the playoffs, now we’re playing good games and good teams. And that’s the way it’s going to go.”
Mail Tribune sports reporter Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or by email at email@example.com.