At less than full strength, the Union boys soccer team could offer up a few excuses for a moment, a game or a season that didn’t go its way, but Titans head coach Jason Moore doesn’t want to hear them.
So while the Titans had a total of three healthy players at one point earlier this season, and ultimately lost three seniors — Hakim Nizam, Hayden Sadewasser and Bobby Lor — to season-ending injuries, the team has carried on, now to the point of reaching the Class 4A state tournament.
A 1-0 win over Olympia in the 4A bi-district playoffs Saturday at McKenzie Stadium secured Union (15-1-1) its first state tournament berth since the 2016 season.
It’s the latest feat for the 4A Greater St. Helens League champs, who put together a string of 13 wins dating back to a 1-0 win over Camas in March.
“These guys have the goal of winning league, getting to state and they were dogmatic about it,” Moore said.
“They made choices, and when they made choices, you see the benefits of it. I couldn’t be prouder of that group and they deserve it. That was my whole focus this year, to help them achieve that goal at the end.”
The Titans needed less than 10 minutes of the first half to find the back of the net. Junior Ethan Voves played a ball through Olympia’s back line and senior Isaiah Bunda got a foot on it past Olympia goalkeeper Anders Saylors-Olsen.
Union senior goalkeeper Rory McDonald made a sliding save on an Olympia shot just a couple minutes later, and along with the Titans’ defense, was able to preserve a clean sheet for the remaining 70 minutes. Union hasn’t allowed a goal since March 31.
“We’re confident, but we’re humble,” Voves said. “Rory is a (freaking) force … he’s the best goalkeeper in league, for sure. It helps to have him, but at the same time, our defense is solid and we all just communicate and talk. That’s all it needs.”
McDonald added: “We know we can hold teams, so if we get an early one that’s huge for us.”
Yet it was the second half when the Titans felt like they really found a groove offensively, starting with a Connor Fortin shot on goal in the 41st minute, even though they didn’t come away with another score. Bunda also took a shot toward the upper right corner inside the post. Saylors-Olsen climbed high to make the save.
“I think the scouting report on us is hit us, which is fine, it is what it is. But (in the first half) we started letting them get contact, hit us and knock us off the ball,” Moore said. “That changed our mentality, so at halftime, that’s what it was. Let’s get back to our mentality, move the ball early, move our bodies early, get our touches, and in the second half, you saw it opened up.”
State was on Union’s mind at the beginning of the season, though a couple early results, like a 2-1 loss to Skyview, or 4-4 tie against Evergreen, had the Titans searching for answers. Though they were still banged up, a 1-0 win over GSHL foe Camas marked the start of their winning streak, and four weeks later, won the rematch 3-0 on April 19.
“At the beginning of the season, we were a little rough,” Voves said. “But we came back together, we talked, we’ve built ourselves back up and we’re now a (powerful) force to be reckoned with.
“When we beat Camas twice, that’s when it clicked. (The) 3-0 second game, I knew it was there, we all knew it was there, and now we’re bringing it.”
After the game, the Titans weren’t shy about their next goal: wanting to play No. 1 seed Bellarmine in the bi-district semifinals on Tuesday at Puyallup’s Sparks Stadium. After Bellarmine’s 4-0 win over Decatur on Saturday, the Titans got their wish.
“These guys are excited, because a lot of guys (would) be like, ‘OK, we’ve got two games, we know we’re in,’ ” Moore said, “but these guys are like, ‘No, let’s compete,’ and I think that encapsulates this group.
“I’m like, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ but if that’s what you want, let’s go.”