The story of the Los Lunas Tigers came full circle on Friday.
A journey that began a year ago with a 7-0 loss to Los Alamos in the semi-finals of the State Soccer Championship ended with a 2-1 win over the Hilltoppers for the Tigers’ first state championship since 1983.
“We approached it as a full circle thing,” head coach Eric Chavez said. “That’s why we wanted to win so badly against them in the Los Alamos Tournament. That doesn’t weigh as heavily as the state tournament, but now I think that chip has gone away. I don’t have a chip now, we just needed to finish it out.”
The Tigers struck first, going up 1-0 on a penalty kick that senior Bryan Tarango earned and converted himself. It was enough to give LLHS the lead at halftime.
In the second half, the Hilltoppers seemed to have the majority of possession, but they struggled to produce anything they could show for it and the Tigers continued to threaten, primarily through the counter-attack. With LLHS clinging to its one-goal lead thanks to outstanding play from freshman goalkeeper Pablo Zarraga, LAHS gained a massive advantage.
Tigers leading scorer Jordan Arballo, who had already received a yellow card for a tackle earlier in the half, was shown a second yellow and sent off for picking the ball up for a throw-in before it went out of play.
Despite the man advantage, the Toppers struggled to generate many chances and the ones they did, Zarraga was there to put a stop to it.
“He’s an amazing goalie,” Chavez said. “The funny thing was, we lost a stud goalkeeper last year and we didn’t know who was going to play in the net. Pablo is a really good forward and he’s probably going to be a first-team all-state selection at goalkeeper. He’s an amazing athlete and a great kid.”
In the last ten minutes of the match, Los Alamos was given a penalty for a handball in the box by one of the Tigers and they converted to tie things at one goal each. The sense of relief from the LAHS supporters and players was palpable, but it didn’t last long.
LLHS restarted the game and Memo Lobato played Tarango ahead through the middle and the senior curled it into the top corner of the net to give the Tigers back the lead at 2-1 and secure the title for Los Lunas.
“You know, honestly, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Chavez said. “The kids, man, they just refused to lose. They know it’s very hard to even reach this game, much less lose it, so we wanted to make the most of the opportunity. Our kids, they’ve got that spunk in them, they just love to play, they’re winners and they showed that.”
During the final push for the Toppers, the crowd showered Zarraga with “MVP” chants every time he came out of the scrum in the box with the ball. His teammates would join in as the players were presented with medals, but he chose downplay his performance after the game.
“I just played my game, I put up a fight and did what I had to do,” Zarraga said.
Los Lunas High allowed students to be excused from class if they attended the game and brought back their ticket, which gave the Tigers a distinct advantage in fan support over the Hilltoppers, who didn’t have quite as short of a trip.
“I wanted to bring home a championship trophy to the village of Los Lunas,” said Chavez, who is in his second year as head coach. “It was important to me to do so. They were very supportive and they gave me all the tools and resources I need to do that, and we did it for them.”
It was fitting that after three days filled with every kind of adversity a team could face, injuries, deficits, weather and being a man down, it was a pair of seniors who carried the team across the finish line, finishing the journey in their final games as members of the Los Lunas High School boys soccer team.
“Memo played me a beautiful ball through the middle, took a good touch and saw that I had space and took the shot,” Tarango said. ”There was nothing to lose, I had to risk it all to win the state championship.”