Hart teammates Jake Erazo (26), left, and Enrique Perez (8) chase a loose ball against Desert Mirage at Hart on Wednesday. Dan Watson/The Signal
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In a game played with feet, most of Wednesday’s highlights involved hands.

A child clutching red pom-poms led restless Hart fans in a second-half cheer.

Hart’s Jaden Nguyen pumped his fist after scoring a life-breathing goal in the 65th minute.

And keeper Jesus Negrete batted away enough Indian shots to lift No. 1 seed Desert Mirage of Thermal to a 2-1 second-round road win in the CIF-Southern Section Division 4 playoffs.

“The goal gave us the momentum that we needed, that we should have had in the first half,” said Hart defender Dillon Vega. “I think being so close to winning the game is what gave us that momentum.”

Even before Nguyen’s sliding shot and score, Hart (17-6-4) looked transformed after halftime.

The Indians controlled the ball, created chances and took strong shots.

But Negrete, an All-CIF goalkeeper on the Rams’ Division 6 champion team last year, made four second-half saves, none bigger than his block of Darwin Herrera’s header off a corner kick in the 75th minute.

“We can’t really get mad. We had our shots and their keeper did his job. He did a really good job,” Nguyen said. “Of course it sucks a little, it had a little sting. We had our opportunities, and we didn’t put them away.”

The question entering Wednesday was whether or not Desert Mirage (22-4) was as good as its No. 1 seed suggested. The Rams’ strength of schedule lagged near the bottom of Division 4, according to Max Preps.

Hart’s Omar Gonzalez (9) passes the ball away from Desert Mirage defender Jesus Rodriguez (8) at Hart on Wednesday. Dan Watson/The Signal

Their counterattacks didn’t lag at all.

The Rams played with precision and speed — a lot of speed.

Alejandro Pimentel, another All-CIF returner, found open space in Hart’s 18-yard box in the 13th minute and hit a shot over the top of a leaping Jacob Tomaszewski. Desert Mirage had landed the first punch, but hardly a knockout blow — especially against a Hart team that overcame a 1-0 halftime deficit to win 2-1 in overtime in Friday’s first round.

Wednesday’s comeback trail got steeper.

Jesus Gutierrez corralled a throw-in and burst free down the left side in the 38th minute. Tomaszewski blocked Gutierrez’s first shot, but the Rams junior finished the rebound.

“That should never be a goal,” said Hart coach Adonay Jovel. “Our guys were taking a mental break.”

Hart clocked back in after halftime and pressured the Rams relentlessly.

Luis Valadez sent a behind-the-back pass to Soghomonian Krikor, who drilled a shot.

There again was Negrete, negating any hope of overtime.

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Mason Nesbitt
Mason Nesbitt is The Santa Clarita Valley Signal's Sports Editor.
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