Soccer: El Rancho zones in on defense

POMONA -- The bull's eye that surrounds the Pico Rivera El Rancho boys' soccer team is immense. Players know it exists, and coach Dominic Picon is more than fully aware that, with every victory, the target expands.

The defending CIF-Southern Section Division 4 champion Dons weren't nationally ranked heading into the season, flying under the radar until late December. They've since ascended to No. 5 -- and top in the state -- in the latest ESPNHS POWERADE FAB 50 rankings.

Let's just say opponents haven't needed much motivation.

"We've had to grind out a lot of wins lately," Picon said Tuesday following a 2-1 second-round playoff victory against Diamond Ranch. "Every team is giving us their best shot. ... I know the kids feel some of the pressure but they've responded pretty well."

El Rancho improved to 24-0 on Tuesday thanks to senior striker Francisco Lara's two goals and an extraordinary defensive stand in the final minutes. Diamond Ranch had three potential equalizers cleared off the line, and a header clanked off the crossbar. The Dons host South Torrance in Thursday's quarterfinals.

The road to repeating has been a difficult one. Junior midfielder Cristian Roldan, the reigning CIF player of the year, has been limited to "playing at 50 percent" with a bad ankle injury, according to Picon. To help compensate, Lara, the team's dynamic scorer, was half-jokingly told by Picon to score three goals in the second half Tuesday.

"It's tough, injuries catch up to you at the end of the season," Picon said. "I'm sure it's mentally tough for these kids because they go to school and they get asked, 'How did you do?' The answer used to be, 'Oh, we won.' It was a good job. Now, the question is, 'How'd you win?' With 2-1 and 2-0 wins the question then becomes, 'What happened?' It's a major deal, but they've done a great job playing with a target on their back."