By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
If the Liberal Redskins only had one scoring threat, they would have been in trouble Tuesday against the Salina Central Mustangs.
But the Redskins have more than one threat, and while the Mustangs worked to eliminate Eduardo Moreno, they couldn’t cover Isai Gutierrez at the same time.
The result was a 4-3 overtime victory for the Liberal Redskins and a fifth appearance in the state’s Final Four in the past six years.
Salina Central took an early 1-0 lead, but less than two minutes later, Gutierrez tied the game with a Redskin goal.
Gutierrez added another goal with 30:43 to play in the first half to give the Redskins 2-1 lead, but with 27:40 remaining in the half Central tied the score.
Lori Navarro tried to redirect her team after the 2-2 first half.
“After they scored first, our defense lost confidence,” she said. “Salina Central had a lot of speed and skilled attackers. They were taking our midfield, and they had some beautiful set plays we were not familiar with. When that happens, it affects the balance and takes momentum away form your offense. We played long ball and air ball — not Liberal soccer. I told them to stick with our game plan, don’t deviate, stay composed. In the second half, we played more in touch with our game plan.”
The wild shootout slowed down with a more calm Redskin attack, and the first 25 minutes went without a goal.
But with 15:49 to play, Eduardo Moreno received a pass from Misael Moncayo and broke free for a goal to give the Redskins a 3-2 lead.
Liberal maintained the advantage until the final five minutes of regulation when Central tied the game 3-3 and forced overtime.
It was the second time in the last four games Liberal played in overtime, the last being for the Western Athletic Conference championship against Dodge City. Liberal won that game 1-0, and Navarro used that to motivate her team in Salina.
“After regulation, I told them we were in overtime with Dodge City,” she said. “It was geat we had that experience, we had been there before. I told them we have to go in there and do what we did before, play hard and don’t surrender. When you get your first opportunity, finish it. It could be the only shot we get.”
But Central had a similar strategy and controlled the first three minutes of overtime, playing near Liberal’s goal and getting free for a wide open opportunity, but a Redskin jumped in the way at the last minute and the ball deflected off his back.
Liberal took control, ran through the midfield, and began a set play that ended with the ball being passed to Moreno who then found Gutierrez. Gutierrez took the shot and it sailed into the Central goal for his third goal of the night and a 4-3 Redskins win.
Gutierrez scored the hat trick with his third goal. Navarro had prepared Gutierrez prior to the game since the focus would be to stop Moreno.
“I told Isai on Friday, ‘You are going to have to be the guy.’ I told him that they will double team Moreno, and you will be open. You will have to capitalize. I challenged him to work hard over the weekend. He stepped up to that challenge. He played a great game yesterday.”
For the first time in almost a decade, Liberal will be making the trip to the Final Four while St. Thomas Aquinas, rhe eight-time defending state champions, will not.
Liberal lost to Aquinas in the Final Four the past two seasons including last year’ s state championship game.
While Aquinas may have been a thorn in Liberal’s side, Navarro said there were other teams ready to earn the title this year besides the Redskins.
“All four of us have momentum and confidence,” she said. “We are not the only one who wants this opportunity. Kapaun lost to Aquinas. Stilwell beat them. Everybody there wants it just as bad as we do. We have to play hard and keep believing that we can do it. It’s always been psychological with Aquinas.”
But Navarro isn’t looking for the state championship just yet. First, Liberal has to face Topeka Seaman in the semi-finals at 7 p.m. Friday at Kansas City Piper High School.
“We have to go in there and take care of business against Seaman,” Navarro said. “We have to focus on what we do and play our best game next.”
© Seward County Publishing, LLC, Liberal, Kansas