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PREP SOCCER: 'Lucky' OES boys coach has Aardvarks back in final

by: COURTESY OF OREGON EPISCOPAL SCHOOL - The OES boys soccer team will play for the Class 3A/2A/1A championship Saturday against St. Mary's of Medford. Kickoff is 1 p.m. at Liberty High.Justin Kerr is in his 15th season as varsity boys soccer coach at Oregon Episcopal School and in his 18th year with the program. He knows when he's blessed with a good team.

"I'm very lucky to have this group," Kerr says of the 2013 Aardvarks.

The team will play for a Class 3A/2A/1A championship Saturday at Liberty High, facing St. Mary's of Medford in the 1 p.m. match.

But that's only part of the story and reason why Kerr is grateful.

"We have a lot of character and chemistry, and everyone on the team has a great relationship with everyone else," he says.

That has helped the Aardvarks go 17-1-0 and win playoff matches over Dayton 2-1, Portland Christian 4-0 and Riverside 2-1 Tuesday in a dramatic semifinal road game won when freshman left winger Cal Seneker scored with 12 seconds remaining in overtime.

Now it's back to the finals for Oregon Episcopal, which will face a ninth-ranked St. Mary's of Medford team that Kerr says is underrated.

St. Mary's upended the favored and No. 1-ranked Riverdale side 1-0 in a quarterfinal match at Lewis & Clark College, then stopped host Portland Adventist Academy 3-2 (4-2 on penalty kicks) on Tuesday.

"I don't want to say I'm surprised" that St. Mary's is in the state final, "because, with the exception of last season, they've been a powerhouse. They're the premier team in Southern Oregon. The OSAA RPI is a fine system, but it may not take into account all the nuances for a team like St. Mary's."

St. Mary's and OES last met in 2011, when the Crusaders won 7-1 at home. The schools also met in the 2006 state semifinals at OES, where the Aardvarks prevailed 4-3 en route to the title.

"They play a sophisticated style of soccer," Kerr says. "They're possession-oriented and very good at moving the ball side to side. Their wings make runs and move into space before the ball is there, which shows a high level of quality.

"We're going to have our hands full."

St. Mary's is led by center midfielder Tracy Salgado, a senior who got the go-ahead goal versus Riverdale and has a couple of other playoff scores.

"All three of their playoff opponents have been from our district, so I've been able to get some information on them," Kerr says.

Still, anything can happen in soccer, especially in a game of this magnitude -- or in the magnitude of the semifinals, which proved to be initially frustrating and then thrilling for the Aardvarks as they fought to the win over second-ranked Riverside in Boardman.

"That game took about five years off my life," Kerr says. "That's a tough, tough place to play."

Riverside scored in the first half, but OES quickly answered with a PK.

"Then it was punch-counterpunch, punch-counterpunch the rest of the way," Kerr says. "Their goalkeeper made some amazing saves in regulation time, and I was getting pretty frustrated.

"But, to be honest with you … we work pretty hard on fitness, and when it got to overtime, I felt we weren't as tired as them, and we were getting a lot of chances that they weren't, and they were good looks."

The game still seemed headed for a shootout -- until what Kerr calls "a movie-like ending."

With 40 seconds to go, Nick Robinson sent a free kick from midfield into the box. Riverside did the right thing and cleared the ball out of bounds to the side for a throw-in.

Sipowicz threw it to the near post, and junior striker Gabe Perry-Freer flicked it over to a place where the freshman, Seneker, "came flying in and was able to tap the ball into the goal with 12 seconds remaining."

It was the second game-winner since Kerr called up Seneker from the JV.

"He's making me look like a genius," Kerr says. "He's just a super-smart player."

That made for a super ride home, as the Aardvarks both celebrated and began to think about Saturday's state championship game.

OES has only three seniors, but Kerr calls it "a very experienced team. We have a huge junior class (11 on the roster), and they've all played in the playoffs since they were freshmen."

This is OES' second straight trip to the championship round.

"We were pretty young last year and played over our heads, then lost a pretty disappointing match to Riverdale (2-1) in the finals."

The 2013 Aardvarks' anchor is a defense led by fourth-year starter Robinson at center back.

Sophomore Jared Cloutier and junior Patrick Leon have alternated in goal and allowed a total of eight goals.

Offensively, junior center midfielder Matthew Sipowicz and senior forward Brooks Yeager are often catalysts.

"Sipowicz is a tremendous player," Kerr says. "High soccer IQ. Very good team leader. Great dribbler. Tremendous distributor.

"Yeager is really fast. Wicked shot. Versatile."

The Aardvarks like to be opportunistic.

"We try to pressure defenders into giving up the ball," Kerr says.

And, when the pressure on OES is mounting, as it was at times in the semifinal at Riverside, team leaders such as Robinson step up.

"At one point, I was flipping out on the sidelines about the referees," Kerr says, "and Nick was out there telling everyone to calm down, and then he turned to me and mouthed the words, 'You, too.' "