Third time's a charm for Wolves

STOCKTON -- Alonso Lara had been here before. Twice, in fact.

Each time, however, Livingston High had fallen short in its bid to win a Sac-Joaquin Section title -- and Lara had been in the goal each time.

"Rather than make us frustrated the losses motivated us to work harder," said the junior, whose Wolves suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss to rival Hilmar a year ago. "It feels great to finally win."

Armando Lopez's second-half goal gave Livingston the lead and Lara turned in a spectacular performance in the goal to clinch a 1-0 win over Patterson, giving the Wolves their first section soccer crown.

Livingston (13-4-2) finished second to Patterson (23-5) in the Western Athletic Conference, with the teams splitting their two matches. Lara gave up two goals when the teams met three weeks ago, and it was that 2-1 victory that clinched the conference title for the Tigers.

"We play against them all the time, so we know their strengths and their weaknesses," said Lara, noting the competition extends into the competitive leagues in which players from both sides play. "I know how a lot of their guys like to shoot, but they also know how I play goal."

Patterson was unable to exploit that knowledge, however.

The Tigers' best scoring opportunity in the first half came on a counterattack in the final minute, as Michael Laines cut into the box and got a solid shot that drilled Lara in the chest. Lara took the full impact and kept both hands wrapped around the ball.

Earlier in the half, Patterson's Sergio Hinojosa had launched a rising shot from 35 yards out, and a leaping Lara managed to tip the ball just over the crossbar. The Tigers also had a number of free kicks in the final 20 minutes, but none came close to slipping past Lara.

"He is the greatest goalie in the world today," said coach Ramon Curiel, whose goalie had 10 saves. "He is a great player, but also a great person to coach. Never misses a practice or a game. Always first at practice and he's always got a ball with him. A great boy."

Curiel said his keeper sharpened his skills playing in leagues in Oakland, Sacramento and Los Angeles during the offseason.

Lopez provided the lone score with 33 minutes left, after shaking a defender on the right side of the penalty box. He attacked the goal, and when the goalkeeper came out to meet him, sent a low kick into the right corner to set off a celebration in the field and the stands.

"I was injured last year and didn't get to play, but I was here two years ago when we lost," Lopez said. "I knew that one goal might be enough to win the championship. When I scored, it was exciting."

Curiel said the title climaxes his brief career as head coach. After nine years with the program, Curiel said he took over the team after former coach Peter Hill underwent knee surgery in the offseason.

"What a great time for these kids, and I'm enjoying it, too," Curiel said. "There's not a more dedicated team anywhere than Livingston."