East Jackson boys’ soccer coach Derek Davis was confident in his team’s game plan heading into its first-round playoff pairing with Sandy Creek. And that plan yielded a quick lead, a decisive victory and a little bit of program history.
Behind two goals from Johnny Benitez, the Eagles beat visiting Sandy Creek 4-1 Wednesday (April 21) at home to advance to the second round of the Class AAA tournament for only the second time in the program’s existence.
Jesus Perez and Oscar Sanchez each added a goal for the Eagles (8-5), who won for the fifth time in six games.
“I think we were able to pressure really well,” Davis said. “We had Clay McEachin and Jesus Perez at attacking mid. That’s a change we’ve made recently that I just think gave us a little more offense up front. Luckily, we were able to get it through.”
Davis noted that Jordan Gonzalez, one of the team’s starting center strikers, missed the game due to an injury.
With the win, East Jackson will make its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2016. The Eagles will play top-seeded Coahulla Creek — ranked No. 4 in Class AAA — on the road Tuesday (April 27).
“We feel very happy,” Davis said. “We couldn’t be more proud. Yeah, this is great. I’m so glad they did this. The kids, they earned it. We’re ecstatic. It’s what we worked for all season.”
Benitez’s first goal came in the ninth minute when he scored off a rebound into an open net. Ben Garcia set up the second score when he played a ball to the left side of the box to Benitez, who sent the ball in to the bottom right of the frame to give the Eagles a 2-0 lead 16 minutes into the game.
“That was a great ball,” Davis said of Garcia’s assist. “He’s one of our younger players that we’re really happy to see be able to come up here to the varsity level and produce.”
In the 30th minute, Perez was taken down in the box by Sandy Creek’s goal keeper. Awarded a penalty kick, Perez stuck the ball inside the left post to push the lead to 3-0.
East Jackson then took advantage of a set piece in the 45th minute with Sanchez scoring on a header following corner kick from Perez.
“That’s very good for him,” Davis said of Sanchez. “He’s been waiting all year. He’s always the one in the box pushing that kind of aggressiveness. I’m glad it paid off for him.”
Meanwhile, the Eagles’ backline allowed Sandy Creek few opportunities in the box. Sandy Creek scored its only goal in the 63rd minute of the contest after it was awarded a penalty kick on a handball in the box.
Goal keeper Roberto Calix later recorded a penalty-kick save — his this third of the year — before rotating out of the game to allow minutes for junior varsity keeper Mason Gordon. Davis noted that he was able to play his entire roster in the win.
“I was able to get everybody into the game tonight, which was our goal,” Davis said. “We’re trying to build up players for next year. So, this was a great game for this season and for next season.”
East Jackson now faces a long road trip to Coahulla Creek for its second-round matchup.
“That’s a two-hour and 45-minute drive,” Davis said. “ … We’re going to turn it into a fun day. We’re going to make it an adventure. Our goal will be just to go and show up and just play the strongest game we can. It will be fun.”
And Davis said it’s been a fun year for his squad, having navigated the challenges associated with COVID this spring to get to this point.
“It’s just amazing being able to come out here and have a successful season, that we’ve actually been able to finish our season,” Davis said. “We’ve been very fortunate as a team to not have been impacted by some of those things. But, yeah, this is great. This is a great thing.”