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By Zach Cavanagh
The San Clemente boys soccer team dominated the pitch at Thalassa Stadium on Tuesday, Feb. 1.
The Tritons had another South Coast League championship in their sights and unleashed relentless pressure against visiting San Juan Hills. San Clemente sent wave after wave of attack toward the Stallions’ box, and surely, on this night where the program honored legendary coach Mike Pronier, the Tritons would be victorious and add another notch to their belt.
However, San Juan Hills stood up strong, and it was a former Triton on the opposing sideline who ultimately claimed the victory.
In the 74th minute, San Juan Hills swiftly countered a failed San Clemente free kick, sprinted downfield and connected on a cross to score on its only shot on target in the second half. The Stallions earned the victory, 1-0, and moved into first place in the South Coast League, with an opportunity to claim the program’s first league title on Thursday, Feb. 3.
“The common thing we’ve been having is to push to the end,” said Eduardo Ozuna, the San Juan Hills coach and a San Clemente High alumnus. “We’ve struggled with ties throughout the season, but we always say we need that cherry on top. I think today, they found it within themselves to not give up, and to the very last second, fighting for it.”
It was only fitting that on the night San Clemente (9-3-3, 4-2-1) honored Pronier that Ozuna was on the other side of the field. Pronier retired before this season after 33 seasons as head coach, during which his teams won three CIF-SS championships, two CIF State Regional championships and an impressive total of 446 games. Ozuna was a senior midfielder at San Clemente for the Tritons’ first CIF-SS and Regional titles in 2011.
“I love the guy,” Ozuna said. “He gave me memories here that I cherish. I can come back here and see my name on the banner in the gym and everything he’s done. Now, I see it firsthand, the kind of things he had to go through, the day-in and day-out stuff. It’s not just coaching on the field. It’s more how do we develop young men, and, honestly, it’s mostly stuff I’m copying and pasting from Coach Pronier.”
On the field, San Juan Hills (6-2-6, 3-0-4) was in the midst of a string of four consecutive draws, which began with a scoreless draw against San Clemente on Jan. 14. Now, the Stallions (10 standings points) have popped ahead of the Tritons (9 points) by one point in the standings heading into the league’s final day on Thursday.
San Clemente will need a win at home over El Toro and a San Juan Hills home draw or loss to Mission Viejo to claim at least a share of the league title. The Tritons beat El Toro, 2-1, in the first match, and the Stallions tied the Diablos, 1-1.
San Clemente will also have to quicken its team game and regain its scoring touch, as the Tritons ultimately just didn’t click together in the final third.
“We’re going to have to go back to our game,” San Clemente assistant coach Gordon Dickie said. “Our game is a fast game, but it’s a team game. It’s one-touch, two-touch game, and we didn’t do it tonight. We had a lot of our boys beating a player and then getting back and trying to beat them again.”
Despite that, the pace was all San Clemente on Tuesday.
San Juan Hills was able to occasionally counter or earn a set piece in the first half and actually had more shots on target in the first half than San Clemente, 2-1. However, the Tritons time and time again charged down the wing and sent in crosses and long balls that just never found an attacking foot on the other end.
The second half was even more dominant for the Tritons, where San Juan Hills simply never had the ball for any meaningful amount of time until the counterattack goal in the 74th minute. San Clemente threw everything it had toward the San Juan Hills box as the game wore on, but the Stallions’ back line withstood every challenge.
“I think they played as a team,” Dickie said. “We played more as individuals than as a team. We dominate the game, and the ball didn’t go in the back of the net for us. Simple as that.”
Once league play ends on Thursday, San Clemente will move on to the CIF-SS Division 1 playoffs. The Tritons, ranked No. 8 in the latest poll, will learn their path when the brackets are revealed on Tuesday, Feb. 8.
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.