In an evenly-matched contest between the Southwest Yosemite League’s top two boys teams, visiting Garces had just enough to hold off Liberty.
Junior Elijah Toppila scored his fifth goal of the season for the only score of the game and the Rams held on for a 1-0 victory to clinch their second straight Southwest Yosemite League championship on Monday night.
“Liberty’s a good team so you can’t take anything away from their players,” Garces coach Hassan Halevy said. “There’s a lot of quality on their team. We knew coming in it was going to be a difficult game. It’s just us getting our boys prepared.
“With our success last year we’ve got the best of every team that we’ve played. We’ve been fortunate to come out with the record that we have. The guys put in a lot of work on and off the field, so the result is well deserved. We just need to heal up a couple of guys and get ready for (playoffs).”
The Rams (20-2, 9-0), who captured the Southern California Regional Division V title last season, also extended their unbeaten streak in SWYL play to 14 games.
“It’s just something we always strive for,” Halevy said. “We want to win every game that’s put in front of us. That’s a hard thing to do, hardly any teams do that, but … There’s a lot of momentum that we can use.
“There was actually a lot of teachable moments in this game that we’re going to have, as well. With a quality team like Liberty, we’re going to see teams like that moving on. We made some mistakes and we made some adjustments, some worked and some didn’t, but I think we learned a lot from this competition."
Garces scored the game’s only goal when Toppila took a long in the center of the box, beat Liberty goalie James Cusick to the ball and rocketed the ball into the net with 17:47 left in the first half.
To that point, neither team had played pretty conservatively with few scoring opportunities.
Liberty (12-8-2, 7-2) had its share of chances for an equalizer in the first half, with Alex Castrejon in the of three opportunities.
Dylan Lynch lobbed the ball in front of the net at the 10-minute mark, but Garces keeper Palmer Bank stepped in front to intercept the ball just in front of a hard-charging Castrejon.
A few moments later, Castrejon broke into the clear, but he didn’t have a good angle and his shot hit the side of the net next to the post. Castrejon popped open again at the end of the half and fired a solid left-footed shot, but it was right at Bank, who made an easy save.
After taking the lead, the Rams were able to settle in.
“We switched our formation after that,” Halevy said. “We were playing a little tighter in the back, getting a feel for how Liberty was going to play. When we saw what they were doing, we countered that. Getting that goal gives you that luxury to actually make those moves instead of playing a little more timid or less aggressive. It actually allowed us to play more aggressively. We moved two forwards up top.
“(Ebubechukwu Ekpemogu) and Alex Helevy,are a force to be reckoned with up top, and then we have Moises Cisneros on the outside to give us a nice three-pronged attack, along with Eli who scored the goal tonight. He’s been playing amazing for the last few weeks along wth Fletcher Bank in the middle controlling it. That boy had been doing great things for us. We have a lot of weapons. We have more weapons on the bench and the playing time is the hardest thing to manage and to dole out.”