Even the loss of one of its top offensive weapons can't seem to slow down the Garces boys soccer team, which is just one home win from a regional championship repeat.
Elijah Toppila scored in the closing seconds of the first half to begin a major scoring surge for the Rams, who knocked off Norwalk 3-0 in the semifinals of the Division 3 Southern California Regional Championships Thursday night.
The second-seeded Rams, who won the Division 5 title a year ago, will host No. 6 Corona-Santiago, which clobbered top-seeded Hart 4-0 in their semifinal matchup Thursday, on Saturday.
A game that was a nail-biter for the better part of 20 minutes turned into a comfortable Rams win, thanks to the momentum-shifting score by Toppila on what proved to be Garces' final possession of the first half.
"I think just going into half having that one goal, it's a huge confidence boost for our kids," "Rams co-head coach Robbie Gouk said. "All season we've stressed on the importance on finishing the half and finishing the game. That was a huge goal for us. I think it turned the tide and led to the second half (of) us dominating."
That domination started with a Fletcher Bank goal with 31:30 to play. Then, with just under 20 minutes remaining, Alejandro Garcia hit a cutting Angel Navarro, who found the back of the net off a perfectly executed free kick.
Garces, which has now won 16 games in a row, found success without Ebubechukwu Epkemogu, who has been shut down with a nagging quad injury that has bothered him the entire season.
Even without the services of a Division I talent, big things are still expected from a Garces team that isn't missing a beat. Ram coaches, however, say overconfidence won't be a problem heading into Saturday.
"We haven't done anything yet," Gouk said. "Until we get to that last game and they win that last game, they're still not there. But they have the potential. They're a great group of kids."
Players are eager to have an opportunity to repeat.
"Not many teams get this chance," Toppila said. "We're just excited to play."
Saturday's final is tentatively scheduled for 4 p.m., though an official start time was not yet determined when The Californian went to press.