Le Grand High sophomore Abel Velazco wasn't expecting to get into the game. Called up from the junior varsity team for the postseason, Velazco was bundled up on bench, rooting on the Bulldogs.
With five minutes left on the clock, Velazco entered the game.
" I was nervous," Velazco said. "I was shaking."
Velazco went from shaking to almost crying when he became the unlikely hero as he tapped in the game-winning goal into the net in stoppage time to lift the top-seeded Bulldogs (15-1-2) to a 3-2 win over No. 4 Encina on Thursday afternoon at Le Grand High.
"It's exciting," Velazco said. "I'm speechless. I don't know what to say. I thought the defender was going to get it. I just jumped and it was there. I thought the goalie was going to get it and I just kicked it in the net."
Rigo Lua sent the ball into the box and it bounced multiple times. Velazco jumped to head the ball, but missed. An Encina defender tried to clear the ball and missed. Encina goalie Silvestre Colon tried to gather the ball, but couldn't. Somehow, it bounced again, right at the feet of Velazco, who tapped the ball into the net.
"I wasn't going to use him," said Le Grand coach Jeff Slaughter. "It was my assistant coach (Fernando Maciel), who said, 'Hey, he's got game.' (Velazco) has really good ball skills."
It was the Bulldogs second consecutive dramatic win in the playoffs. In the first round on Tuesday, Le Grand had to comeback from a 2-0 deficit in the second half to defeat No. 8 Amador 5-2 in overtime.
The overtime periods were costly because Le Grand's leading scorer Andres Lua picked up a red card, which came with a one-game suspension and meant he was unavailable against Encina.
"When you lose your top scorer everyone has to step it up," said Le Grand senior captain Julian Moreno, who scored the first two goals for the Bulldogs against Encina. "This team has a lot of heart. It's crazy, we'll go down, but I'm glad this team won't go down without a fight."
Le Grand found itself fighting back from en early deficit again when goalie Luisnoe Cardenas was whistled for a foul for tripping Encina's Iven Flores in the penalty box.
Flores then scored on a penalty kick to give Encina (16-7-2) a 1-0 lead with 26 minutes left in the first half.
Le Grand pulled even near the end of the first half on a penalty kick of its own after Moreno was tackled in the box. Moreno scored on the penalty kick to tie the score at 1-1 in the 32nd minute.
Le Grand pulled away midway through the second half on a corner kick. Hector Tejada delivered a pass that Colon failed to gather. Colon's bobble opened the door for Moreno to score his second goal of the game to give Le Grand a 2-1 lead in the 52nd minute.
"I had made eye contact with my teammate Hector," Moreno said. "The goalie deflected it a little, but I was glad I was in the right place."
Encina came up the equalizer when the ball glanced off the head of Le Grand's Emilio Zavala and landed in front of Flores, who deposited the ball into the net that tied the score at 2-2 midway through the second half.
The game stayed that way until Velazco's heroics late.
The victory sends Le Grand back to the section championship game. The Bulldogs will play the winner of Thursday's other semifinal matchup between No. 2 Delta and No. 6 Waterford on Thursday, March 1 in Elk Grove at 7 p.m. The Bulldogs lost 1-0 in the Division VII championship game to Cristo Rey last season.
"The fact that we went undefeated (in league) this season shows how much we want it," Moreno said. "I'm glad we're back in the championship game. That's been our goal this whole season."
Buhach Colony 2, Mira Loma 0 in Atwater – Juan Valenzuela and Jonathan Rodriguez scored first-half goals as the Thunder (10-6-2) advanced to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals against top seed Pacheco on Tuesday.
Pacheco 6, River Valley 0 in Los Banos – Rodolfo Rivera and Gino Valtierra both scored two goals as the Panthers (13-0-6) advance to Tuesday's semifinal against Buhach Colony.
Livingston 2, Foothill 1 in Livingston – Antonio Aguilar and Carlos Valencia scored goals to propel Livingston past Foothill in the Division IV quarterfinals. The second-seeded Wolves (14-2-6) will host No. 3 Natomas in the semifinals on Thursday.
Greene Academy 3, Stone Ridge Christian 2 in Sacramento – Jordan Hooker and Bryce Louters scored goals for the Knights as their season came to an end in the Division VII semifinals. Jackson DeJager recorded an assist for SRC.