Hart Indians boys’ soccer brought the heat in Thursday’s physical league road battle with the Saugus Centurions.
Despite numerous corner kicks and shots on goal, the Indians just squeaked out a 1-0 win over the Centurions. The reason: The Saugus backline and sophomore Ethan Murillo were all over the Hart attack.
Murillo racked up nine saves in the loss, only allowing one goal to Indians center back Samahj Oyewo, who drilled the go-ahead goal off a corner kick in the 56th minute.
Hart (5-1-1, 3-0) had nearly a dozen corner kicks in the game, including five in the first 20 minutes. Indians midfielder Diego Rodriguez took nearly every corner, perfectly placing the ball in front of the goal on almost every attempt, but Murillo was ready.
Saugus’ backline recovered well throughout the night. The Cents (1-1-2, 1-1-2) were typically in position to stop would-be attacks, but recovered and shifted when the Indians blew by through solid ball movement.
“He’s a special keeper,” said Centurions coach Seth Groller. “He does such a solid job for us back there between the posts. He just comes up huge time and again. Our backline is definitely starting to work better together and cover for each other. I’m pleased with how we’re shifting and doing everything.”
Hart’s entire backline and keeper Marco Gonzalez also played well, and ended the game with a clean sheet. Oyewo and fellow defenders Cameron Smith and Messiah Antwi made their presence felt all over the field. For Indians first-year head coach Alex Bernal, his team moved the ball just the way they wanted to.
“That’s our starting block there,” Bernal said. “Every time the goalie has it, we try to build out of the back. We have confidence in the boys and they’re confident on the ball. I think that’s a big part of what allows us to get up the field with numbers and put us in the right positions.”
Saugus had some chances, and earned a corner kick in the first minute of play. The Cents hounded the Hart defense but just couldn’t find a spark offensively. Junior Lincoln Fritz nearly netted the first score of the match, after breaking free down the right sideline. Fritz got the ball back deep in Indian territory but his shot fired just wide right.
“We started the first 10 minutes pretty good and did a lot of the things that we had talked about possessing,” Groller said. “But the last maybe 25 minutes of the first half, I feel like we kind of resorted to just kicking that ball up, because we did feel the pressure instead of looking to possess. That obviously is not our style at all, and we weren’t able to get many good chances because of that.”
Fritz nearly had a chance at an equalizer late in the game after working the ball around a diving defender. The junior forward came close to having space for a shot but the speedy Oyewo recovered and cleared the ball.
Hart won the possession battle in the game, as there were seemingly multiple white jerseys around the ball, no matter where it bounced on the field.
“Something we preach is making sure that as soon as we lose it, we react and always try to get numbers to the ball so they don’t have a player advantage,” Bernal said. ”It just shows their work rate. It’s not always going our way but I think defensively you can always put the pressure and bring intensity.”
The loss was Saugus’ first defeat of the year, in a game without many firsts. Hart hasn’t dropped a Foothill League match in over three years and hasn’t lost to Saugus since 2016. The match was a physical one, as most league games are, but these two teams always bring a little extra drive to take down one another.
Bernal thinks his team has shown signs of playing down to opponents so far this season but was pleased with their efforts on Thursday.
“I think the boys went out and played our solid game,” Bernal said. “I think sometimes we tend to play how the other teams play here in the valley, which is very physical, very direct, but I think the boys did a good job being patient. I think that’s something we’ve been preaching. It was closer than we wanted it to be, but we just got to keep getting better.”
Hart remains unbeaten in league but will look to keep getting better. The team is adjusting well to Bernal’s coaching but the players are looking to build more chemistry, now that they’re without two-time Foothill League Player of the Year Trenton Rickard at the top of lineup.
“The individual quality is there and I think as the season goes on that the chemistry will begin to show,” Bernal said. I think it’s beginning to show now and we just have to keep building on it. I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we want to be. Hopefully we can peak at the right time.”
Groller has seen his team show consistent creativity on offense but didn’t see it much on Thursday.
“The interesting thing is we are very creative offensively at times and that’s the one thing that I felt like, today especially, I was waiting to see,” Groller said. “I was waiting to see that creativity that I see so often but it just wasn’t it wasn’t there for us today.”
Both teams will enter the Hart tournament after Christmas before heading back into Foothill League action on Tuesday, Jan. 2. Hart will host Castaic while Saugus heads up to Golden Valley. Both matches are slated for 3:15 p.m.