PREPS: El Rancho won't take CIF soccer title for granted

Dominic Picon was in his second season of coaching when he guided El Rancho High School to its first CIF Southern Section boys soccer title eight years ago. That was easy, he thought.

Not this time.

The second-seeded Dons (23-2-2), from Pico Rivera, captured their second championship Saturday afternoon, outlasting Oak Hills of Hesperia in a scintillating Division 4 final, and Picon recognized the accomplishment in ways he couldn't in 2003.

"I took it for granted when we were here the first time ...," Picon said after junior forward Francisco Lara netted two goals and sophomore midfielder Cristian Roldan set up a pair in a 4-2 triumph at Warren High School in Downey. "I was 27, and I thought this would happen all the time, and I didn't appreciate it. I can't even remember the game very much, or the pageantry surround it, so I told the kids just to enjoy [the day]."

El Rancho shared their first title, after a 0-0 draw with Kennedy of La Palma, but Lara made sure this one was the Dons' alone, scoring a superb goal to quickly answer Oak Hills' first-half equalizer, then netting the winner with an emphatic finish from a corner kick with 15 minutes to play.

"Pancho's a true No. 9," said Picon, using soccerese for "striker." "He's a poacher. That's what you look for in a No. 9. He came up big in the biggest game in his career so far. That's what we told the boys before the game: The biggest players always play at their best in the biggest games, and this is the biggest game these kids have played in."

Lara's first goal, just seconds after Brett Croft pulled Oak Hills even, was really nice: He sped past one defender to the byline and then -- just when you figure he'll play the ball into the middle for a teammate -- cut inside, weaving past two defenders and gently rolling the ball with the outside of his right foot toward the net. Bryan Simon swept in to clear it away, but linesman Jesus Garcia signaled the ball had crossed the goal line.

"At times, you've got to be selfish, you know?" Lara said. "And that's when I mostly score."

Roldan fed him for the second, heading on Johnny Molina's corner kick to be volleyed home, and set up Alejandro Haro's opener. Erik Argueta added the fourth.

"It feels great, man," said Lara, who scored five playoff goals and "around 30" for the season, according to Picon. "It took me three years to win CIF, man. Never felt better. ... [Detractors] always tell us, you know, we're too small or we can't play. But once we're on the field, we've got heart. That's all it takes, man. That's all it takes."

The Dons, who will open Southern California Regional action Tuesday with a Division I game at Southern Section Division 1 champ San Clemente (17-6-6), have that "we're-a-family" thing going on, for real.

The players all come from the same Coast Soccer League-affiliated club, South El Monte-based Necaxa, and have been playing together for years, some since they were 6. Roldan, the Del Rio League MVP, is getting attention from the bigger clubs and just made a move to Independiente, a bigger club from Norwalk. Lara and othes are with Necaxa's under-17 side coached by Argueta's father.

Picon says he didn't expect to contend for a CIF title until next year, that this year's team was too young -- as many as six sophomores start; three were in the first XI for the final: goalkeeper David Lopez and Roldan and Carlos Tomayo, the central midfielders -- but that the "maturation process has been pretty incredible to see the last month."

This team prevailed, Picon said, for three reasons.

"The first thing is we have a very intelligent group of players -- our collective GPA, for 24 guys, is 3.4 -- so we've got smart players [who] know how to take instruction," he said. "Second thing is we've got classy kids. They're all good kids. ... And the third thing, and it sounds kind of corny, is that all of our kids are Pico kids. They're from a small community, and they play for the school. They play for the name on the back of their shirt, which is El Rancho.

"And there's a lot of other teams I've seen where you get these great club players coming in, [but] they might not give you 100 percent duing the high school season. But these guys live and die for El Rancho soccer, and, you know, when that passion comes together, and the intelligence and the class, I think that's a good mix."