TUMWATER — With last year’s senior class and a disappointing result in the back of their minds, the Columbia River boys soccer team did not want to suffer the same fate in a setting all too familiar.
That’s why the Rapids’ 3-0 win over Tumwater in Saturday’s Class 2A district championship was, in part, a tribute to the 2021 group that was denied a district title and a chance to compete in the state tournament.
The circumstances were similar for River on Saturday as they were last spring. Both River teams were undefeated going into the district final, both games were against Tumwater on the Thunderbirds’ home field and both included an early go-ahead goal for River.
Yet unlike last year’s eventual 2-1 defeat, there was no letdown for the Rapids (20-0) in the rematch.
Even better, after two years without a state tournament, this River team will get to compete for the 2A title and likely will be the No. 1 seed when brackets are released Sunday.
“The biggest difference between last year and this year was our mentality,” said senior Rowen Naylor, who scored River’s first goal in the fifth minute. “We went into last (year’s) game undefeated and were like, ‘Oh, this is probably going to be another game.’ We weren’t expecting them to hit us in the mouth. It was a really physical game last year.
“Just the pain of that loss, seeing all the seniors crying, I mean, I was tearing up too. It was sad. Coming back here and playing in their place again, it’s basically the same game, same environment, we just wanted to have a different result this time.”
The Rapids are a naturally motivated group regardless of the situation they’re in, head coach Filly Afenegus says, but knowing what happened one year ago gave them even more incentive.
The team has a group chat that also extends to alumni of the program. Several of those former River players sent text messages ahead of Saturday to encourage the Rapids and remind them how much a game like this means.
“They were saying, let’s win this, let’s do this for us, for our legacy and our family,” senior Logan Simmons said. “That really brought the spirits up in everybody, and on the bus everyone knew, it was just like, ‘Lock into our game, do our thing and let’s win this.’ ”
River’s first goal came in the fifth minute thanks to a hustle play by a sliding Elliot McClafferty to save a ball from going out of bounds. The senior quickly got back up to his feet, dribbled inside and played a perfect ball through to a streaking Naylor, showing off a chemistry the two longtime teammates have built beyond high school.
“I didn’t even have to yell at (Elliot), I just pointed and he saw me there,” Naylor said. “I just took one touch, I saw the keeper rushing toward me, so I just decided, get it on frame. I saw my teammate, Alex Harris, to my left, and I was like, ‘I got to have this one.’ ”
Harris, River’s leading scorer this season, was on the receiving end of a River attack in the 28th minute after Johnpaul Guzman won possession against Tumwater (13-6) in one of the Thunderbirds’ corners and passed to Nathan Bertolino, who flipped to Harris for the score.
Alexander Brown scored the Rapids’ final goal inside the final 10 minutes of the second half from a throw-in, and most of River’s starters checked out from there.
Underclassmen, juniors and even some of River’s seniors have never played in a state tournament game, which is hard to fathom for a perennial power like the Rapids, but with two years of traditional postseasons lost to the pandemic, this spring will be a first-time experience for many.
“Everybody in the state and across the country were robbed out of the last two years. We’ve had some really, really strong teams the last couple years as well,” Afenegus said. “Our whole thing that we talk about is, it’s important for us to go find our ceiling. We’ll figure that out in state, and we’re just thankful for the opportunity this year.”