CERES — In two previous soccer meetings this season, Ceres High managed to defeat Sierra by matching them physically and taking away the sidelines.
On Thursday, the Bulldogs again were physical, and Sierra's sideline game was never an option as Ceres advanced to its second straight Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 championship game with a 2-0 victory.
"Once you've been there, you understand what it takes to get there again," said Ceres coach Koeurn Phe. "We had that experience, so we knew that if we played together and stayed focused everything would fall into place."
The Bulldogs, 16-3-3 after finishing second to Central Valley in the Valley Oak League, will do battle against the crosstown rival Hawks on Saturday. Central Valley defeated El Dorado 2-0 Thursday night in Placerville.
The final, originally scheduled to be played Saturday at Folsom High, will be moved closer to home to accommodate the hometown fans. The announcement of site and time will be made this morning by the section.
Ceres won its semifinal because of its strength up the middle.
The reason Sierra couldn't use the sidelines? They did not exist. The game was played on Ceres' football field, which is significantly narrower than a regulation soccer pitch.
The Bulldogs used that home-turf advantage, pushing the Timberwolves to the middle of the field, which was barren and bumpy like every other natural grass football surface in mid-November. Both teams had to play on it, so there was no clear advantage there, but Ceres played on it as if it was their home field, which it was.
"We like to spread and stretch the field, but we had to change a little of the format coming in here because of the small field," said Sierra coach Jose Montes. "That's not an excuse, because Ceres was better.
"We couldn't stretch the field. We had to play everything up the middle. But it took until the second half for our guys to figure out they could do it."
And by that time, the Bulldogs already were in a defensive mode thanks to a 2-0 lead at the end of a downwind first half.
Alejandro Castro started the scoring in the ninth minute, intercepting a poor clearing attempt at the top of the box, taking one dribble to the right and beating Sierra goalkeeper Luis Garcia to the right.
The Bulldogs continued to pressure throughout the first half, during which they outshot Sierra 13-4, but didn't strike again until the 37th minute. That's when Luis Martinez won a midfield battle about 30 yards out, beat his man up the right side and crossed Garcia with a shot into the left corner.
Sierra, with the wind at its back for the second half, stepped up the pressure and outshot its hosts 11-5 in the final 40 minutes, but Bulldogs goalkeeper Kyle Cerny never had to leave his feet to preserve the shutout.
The Timberwolves finished the season 17-8-3, a remarkable turnaround from last year's 4-18-2 mark.
"When you play in this league and finish in third place, you're a tough team, and that's why we made it as far as we did," Montes said.
But Ceres will be making it one step beyond, to the place it dropped a seven-round shootout decision to River City last year, giving one final challenge for the eight seniors on the Bulldogs' roster.
"These kids have played together for five or six years and some have grown up playing together in the same neighborhood," Phe said. "We're going back to the section final."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.