LOVINGTON – Lovington’s boys soccer team has been on a mission for six months now. And the Wildcats have entered the final phases of it.
Since losing the state 4A championship game to Albuquerque Academy in overtime last April, the Wildcats due back this season have had a return trip to the final dancing in their heads. It was the priority of their offseason, and of this season too as they plowed through non-district games.
Now into October – the regular season’s final month – and knee-deep in District 4-4A play, Loving-ton can see the state playoffs a little more clearly. The Wildcats are doing their best to prepare for another title shot, improving to 13-1 overall, 3-0 district, after Tuesday’s 6-0 home win over district rival Goddard, which followed Saturday’s 5-0 home victory over district foe Artesia and last week’s 9-0 road rout of district opponent Portales – protecting their No. 1 state ranking in the process.
In a few weeks, the ‘Cats will get a chance to see just how far their work and talent can carry them, see if it can earn them the one extra win that eluded them last spring.
“Getting that red trophy was nice, but we always want to get first place,” Wildcats senior co-captain Cristian Mendoza said last Saturday at Brian Urlacher Field, where he had scored the state semifinal game-winner against Hope Christian in overtime six months earlier, catapulting Lovington into the 4A championship game.
“Winning that red trophy was kind of tough,” Lovington senior co-captain Mason Enriquez said after Saturday’s Senior Day festivities at Urlacher Field. “We always go for first, so I think we’re going to make another run at it, hopefully get the blue trophy.”
“That’s our focus right now,” Lovington head coach Reyes Marquez said after last Saturday’s win. “We’ve just got to make sure that we don’t get nicked up too much. So we’re trying to bring some of our youth in a little bit, but still, we don’t want to mess up on our chemistry. So we’re still running the horses as deep as we can into games.”
Getting those younger Wildcats some quality time is crucial. Having talented players who can be replaced for a breather by other talented players can only help the ‘Cats as they go forging deeper into October, closer to the state tournament, then into it.
“The nice thing about having a quality team is we have some depth,” Marquez said. “If somebody is having an off first 20 minutes of a half, then somebody else has got to pick it up.”
Players have been picking each other up, fighting for and with each other, one of the marks of a championship-caliber team, even if the state title hasn’t yet been won on paper.
“We just keep battling,” Mendoza said. “I love these teammates.”
“Since we’ve played together for all these years, I think we’ve just gotten stronger,” Enriquez said. “We build on each other, we help each other up when we’re down.”
Forward/midfielder Adam Aguilera and goalkeeper Isaac Hinson, though seniors, are new to this year’s varsity, agreeing to lend their free time when not playing football to help push Lovington boys soccer toward its state-championship goal.
“It’s really exciting,” said Hinson, after notching a clean sheet in net on Saturday, three days before doing it again on Tuesday. “We just started district, so we’re hoping to be undefeated in district. We’re getting good.”
“I’m very excited,” said Aguilera, who is already a state champion in the 200-meter dash. “We have a really good team. I feel like we can bring that blue trophy back.”
The Wildcats played on Tuesday like they definitely have a shot at some blue hardware, with a decisive shutout win over Goddard.
Tuesday’s game was scoreless for more than 10 minutes, but just inside the first half’s last 30, junior midfielder Ryan Marquez booted one from about 20 yards out, kicking it diagonally from the right side of the field into the upper left corner of Goddard’s goal to hand Lovington a 1-0 lead with 29:10 remaining in the half.
It didn’t take the Wildcats as long to notch their second goal. Less than six minutes after the first, Enriquez found himself in front of Goddard’s goal, one-on-one with keeper Collin Treat, and just had to tap the ball to the right to find the Rockets’ net for a 2-0 Loving-ton edge with 23:30 to play before halftime.
With 21:47 left in the half, Enriquez headed the ball from the left side of Goddard’s goal, into the right corner of the Rockets’ net to hand Lovington a 3-0 advantage.
And late in the half, Mendoza had the ball alone on the left side of Goddard’s goal, stopped to set himself, maneuvered the ball a bit, then fired it into the Rockets’ net to put Lovington up 4-0 with 5:19 left before intermission.
That score held until well into the second half, when Kevin Gallegos fired a straightaway shot from around the field’s 20-yard line. Treat was able to get a hand on it, but the shot’s momentum carried the ball into the net for a 5-0 Loving-ton lead with 17:16 to play.
And with 2:22 left, Mendoza buried a penalty kick to complete the Wildcats’ scoring.
Saturday afternoon at Urlacher Field, the Wildcats beat Artesia by five.
It was, however, still a scoreless game for almost 20 minutes of the first half, and just a modest 1-0 Wildcat lead at halftime – on the strength of Mendoza’s first goal of the day, occurring with 23:10 left before the break.
Artesia did its best to keep the ‘Cats from increasing their lead early in the second half, with Bulldog goalie Santi Gonzalez making some impressive saves, including one that he deflected up and off the crossbar with one hand.
But Lovington kept pounding away, and eventually scored again, when Gonzalez came charging out of the Artesia goal and Gallegos caught him out of position, then punched one into the empty net to give the Wildcats a 2-0 edge with 34:24 still to play in the second half.
Neither team could have realized it yet, but the floodgates were open. At the 33:08 mark, Mendoza headed one into the net from right in front of it, stretching the difference to 3-0.
With 7:15 to play, Gallegos booted the ball from the right side of the field, and sent a diagonal shot into the left side of Artesia’s net, just past a diving Gonzalez.
Christian Contreras tacked on Lovington’s final goal with 5:29 remaining.
The Wildcats will continue their quest Tuesday (Oct 12), when they host Portales at 6 p.m.