SUMNER — The certain equalizer caromed off the upright and bounced along the end line.
For a half-second, but what felt like a lifetime for the Columbia River hopeful, it sat there, mere inches away from giving the Chieftains’ renewed life in the 2A state boys soccer championship.
From Aaron Espinosa’s foot to Alex Ashmore’s head, the play was out of a movie script: picture perfect. The reality was Columbia River’s fairy-tale ending wasn’t to be.
A Sehome defender cleared the ball and seconds later the official blew the whistle on the Chieftains’ season, a 1-0 loss the result in the books Saturday at Sunset Chev Stadium.
“I just told them I was proud of them,” River coach Filly Afenegus said. “We were literally inches away from tying it up.”
A tough first half for River featured a talented Sehome (19-1-3) squad controlling the game and outshooting River 5-1. A long Sehome throw-in by Ben Holroyd was flicked up by Julius Ellison and sailed over everyone and into the net. It was the game’s only goal.
The Chieftains (21-1-1), exhausted from the prior night’s grueling 1-0 win over Fife, responded in the final 40 minutes.
Whether it was the chocolate milk and ice baths coach recommended to all his players or just pure determination to cash in on a season full of challenges, the Chieftains came out fiery.
“They showed how tough they are,” Afenegus said. “For them to gut it out in the second half … I am so proud of how they played.”
As the clock wound down, the chances got better, or perhaps magnified by the situation. Reserve forward David Lockwood nearly tapped in a rebound attempt in the 60th minute, but the ball skipped away from him.
In the 75th, Aaron Espinosa drove down the left flank and slid a shot to the far post. It was inches wide.
And in the 77th, Jake Connop and his golden boot fired a 22-yard shot that splashes the net more often not for the junior star. It missed the upper corner by a foot.
All would have been an impressive equalizer typical of the Chieftains’ play in a 45-game unbeaten streak. Ashmore’s flicked-on header to the far post on Espinosa’s cross in the 80th minute would have been glorious.
“That’s part of soccer,” Afenegus said. “I would rather it be really, really close like that and for us to battle back and have opportunities to score and tie it and win it than to not be in the game at all. It’s hard, but that’s soccer and sometimes you just don’t get the breaks you need like that.”
Streaks must end, and seasons, too. For Columbia River — guaranteed its second piece of hardware in program history — it’s with a second-place trophy in hand, a totem of a season many thought wouldn’t be this fruitful.
A season in which the Chieftains proved it doesn’t matter how many they graduate (11 from last year’s state title team), they’re perennial contenders.
With the entire starting lineup back, the target and unbeaten streak off their back, the Chieftains aren’t ready to bid adieu to the state final four just yet.
“This game is going to be a very good motivator for next year,” Afenegus said. “I’m not worried about that at all. I think this will be something that guides us all of next year.”