To be the best, Clovis High needed to beat the best.
That meant dethroning the two-time defending Valley champion Central Grizzlies in the Central Section boys’ soccer final on Friday.
“Going against Central is only fitting, because we wanted to play them,” said Clovis High head coach Danny Amparano. “They’re back-to-back champs and we knew the game was going to be tough.”
“When you get to this point in the season, from the year we had, all we came in doing was saying we had hope and opportunity.”
Clovis took advantage of its opportunities late in Friday’s final, striking first on Zander Lopez’s header in the 69th minute. A clutch save in the 78th minute by goalkeeper Manny Bassi and Lopez’s second goal moments later sealed a 2-1 Valley title victory for the Cougars.
It is the third Central Section championship in Clovis High boys’ soccer program history and the second with Amparano at the helm.
This championship came with a new motto for the Clovis side.
“Hope and opportunity,” said Amparano. “We had the opportunity and we kept the hope.”
Clovis dominated possession and scoring chances early in the first half, but Central broke through for a clear shot on goal in the 25th minute that was saved by a diving Bassi.
There were only a few chances offered by the Clovis defense, which shaped its strategy based on its two regular-season meetings with Central. One of those meetings ended in the Cougars’ sole loss.
“We expected [Central] to sit back, because that was their game plan the last time we played them and it worked for them,” said Clovis defender Steven Randall. “We just knew if we sat back a little, let them play long ball and us play possessive, then we would find more success.”
Another theme of the first half was physicality — three yellow cards were handed out between both sides before halftime.
Clovis received a golden opportunity to score first in the 52nd minute, when the Cougars launched an aggressive offensive attack and drew a foul inside the penalty box. The ensuing penalty kick went wide of the post, however.
The Cougars got redemption in the 69th minute when Jesus Ponce set up for an indirect free kick just outside the penalty box.
Ponce sent a cross into a sea of blue and white, and the ball found the curly-haired head of Lopez.
“In the first round of playoffs, I scored two headers in one game and got us the win,” Lopez said. “I just knew Jesus was going to put that cross right in at the perfect time. They left me too much space.”
“Sometimes, you’re in the right place at the right time and I’ll tell you what, I’d want [Zander] there,” Amparano said.
Lopez’s header gave Clovis a 1-0 lead with 10 minutes left in the match. Central made several runs at the net and came close to tying the match on a couple of corner kicks, including one saved by Bassi at the last moment.
Lopez scored again after Bassi’s save to give Clovis a 2-0 lead, sending Lamonica Stadium into a frenzy as the entire Cougars bench spilled onto the field.
Central scored a quick goal as soon as play resumed, but after they raced to midfield to restart their attack, the final whistle blew to end their Valley title hopes.
With the win, Clovis (21-1-1) awaits state playoff seedings, with a home state playoff match very likely for the Maxpreps-ranked No. 5 team in the state.
It’s one more opportunity for a team that held onto hope during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when a high school boys’ soccer season seemed unlikely to happen.
“Since last March, we just kept hope and fought and it was not even about the game,” Amparano said. “It was about their lives and working outside. They were like ‘Coach, are we going to have a season?’ and I said ‘Just play, let’s work’… That’s what makes this special, is that they believed.”