Coming off epic win, Saugus boys soccer ready for Norwalk in semis

Saugus forward Josh De Leon (10) heads a pass to a teammate against Lancaster defender Eric Rodriguez (21) at Saugus High School. Dan Watson/The Signal
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As Josh De Leon’s teammates rushed him, the burly senior just wanted to make sure he stayed upright.

At 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, De Leon might have swayed a bit, but he managed to steady himself amid the hearty celebration of a 1-0 road win over Colony High of Ontario on Saturday.

Fittingly, his golden goal in the second overtime kept the Centurions (16-6-4) on their feet in the CIF-Southern Section Division 4 playoffs.

MORE: Saugus boys soccer advances to semifinals

Saugus will take on Norwalk at La Mirada High today at 3 p.m. in the Centurions’ first semifinal appearance since 2007. A win would mean the first CIF championship berth in program history.

“I threw my arms up in the air. I was too excited to know what to do,” De Leon said of his 12th and most crucial goal of the season.

Saugus senior Wyatt Vradenberg set up the play by lofting a pass toward the top of Colony’s 18-yard box.

De Leon and a Colony defender each jumped, but neither touched the ball, De Leon said.

The defender lost his footing, and De Leon one-touched the ball off the bounce and over the head of a charging goalie.

“I swear the ball was in the air for seven minutes,” said Saugus coach Seth Groller. “I’m yelling at the ball the whole time to get down because I thought it was going over.”

When did De Leon know?

“Right as the ball started to get maximum height, when it started to slow down, I knew it was going to be a goal,” he said.

The score means Saugus’ goal of a CIF title is still alive. Though, in another sense, the Centurions have already accomplished a goal.
After losing to Valencia for the second time in league on Feb. 7, meaning the Centurions would finish second in the Foothill League behind the Vikings, Groller said the Cents would regroup, finish the regular season strong and prep for another deep postseason run.

They’ve done that — advancing to the quarterfinals for the second straight year and pushing one step further.

Saugus lost 2-1 to eventual section champ Godinez of Santa Ana in last year’s quarters. Godinez is also the team that has knocked Norwalk out of the playoffs the last two seasons: in the first round last year, and in the quarters in 2015.

Norwalk (16-6-1) enters today’s game as co-champion of the Suburban League and having knocked off Division 4’s No. 2 seed (University of Irvine) in the quarterfinals.

“We know that they are a team that can control the game,” Groller said. “They have very good midfielders, who possess the ball well and distribute well.”

The Lancers, Groller said, also look to shoot at times from farther than 30 yards out or slip players forward into their attack.

“They tend to try to surprise you on their attack,” he said, “bringing an outside back or something like that.”

The Centurions’ focus, as you might expect, is on themselves. Saugus, Groller believes, has been peaking at the right time on offense and on defense. The Centurions haven’t allowed a goal through their first three playoff games or in nine of their last 12 matches overall.

“I can’t say enough about (junior goalie) Matt Sayers,” Groller said. “He made a handful of excellent saves for us in Saturday’s game, and he’s done that throughout the playoffs.”

Another key factor in Saugus’ run? Experience.

“I think we’re a lot more confident than last year,” said senior James Johnson, whose 25 goals are five short of tying the program’s single-season record. “Going into the games, we were a little more hesitant, a little more nervous, than we are this year. This year, we’re going in with the confidence that we can definitely win these games.”

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