Wild race for SFL playoff spots as second half starts

Grizzlies safely on top, everything else up in the air
By: Kurt Johnson, The Press Tribune
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A look at the Sierra Foothill League boys soccer standings at the midway point of the season had a few familiar names, and one big surprise, up near the top. While you would expect to see Granite Bay, Rocklin and Del Oro in the mix, the Roseville Tigers have crashed the contender party after a 2-1 win over Del Oro to close out the first half. Led by Tanner Roland, the Tigers are winning in the classic Pablo Gutierrez style, by holding the opposition’s scoring down and looking for scoring chances that provide the opportunity to win games. Sweeper Giovanni Reader has been outstanding for Roseville, and his contribution when moved forward to the front line has been huge for the Tigers. Nowhere was that more evident than in the way Roseville opened and closed the first six-game set. The Tigers knocked off one of the league favorites, Oakmont, by a 1-0 count in their second league game and then closed out a 3-2-1 first half with the victory over the Golden Eagles. The Tigers improvement and growing confidence was driven home Thursday when they opened the second half with a convincing 4-1 win over Nevada Union, a team they had tied 1-1 on their home field to open the league season. While Roseville (1-10-1 in 2008) has been the league’s most pleasant surprise, the rough start for Oakmont has to be its most perplexing story. Coming off of a trip to the section final a year ago, and returning most of their core players, the Vikings were expected to challenge for the league and section title’s this year, but after opening league play with three losses and a tie, Oakmont has work to do in the second half. “At the halfway point the SFL looks to be in order this year with the exception of Oakmont,” said Rocklin coach Grant Depue. “Oakmont will have to run the table to have a shot of the playoffs and I truly believe they are scary good and if they make playoffs they have a shot at the whole thing.” Cole Alexander, Robert Work and Kody Duff have gotten the Oakmont offense going in the final two games of the first half, but at 2-3-1 and sitting in fifth place in a league that will send just three teams to the postseason, the road is still a long one for Oakmont. Granite Bay is always at or near the top of the SFL, but this year’s 6-0 first half was still a bit surprising. The Grizzlies opened the second part of the league season with a 2-1 win over Del Oro, their 24th consecutive league win. The Grizzly teams that won a section title in 2006, and then amassed a 10-1-1 record in 2007 before running off 12 straight league wins in 2008 on the way to another section championship, were led by electrifying striker Chris Gaschen and multi-dimensional midfielder Ryan Hollingshead. That dynamic duo are playing Division I college soccer now, but this new group is making its own way, a different way. “I did not expect to be where we are,” said Granite Bay coach Steve Fischer. “Things have gone better than expected. With a large graduation of some very good ballplayers, we are very young this year and I knew that we would be somewhat up and down with our play.” At 7-0 with five games remaining, Granite Bay is in a strong position, with a 2-½ game lead over its nearest pursuer, Roseville. “I still feel that there will be some difficulties,” Fischer said. “Our league is competitive and we still have some tough teams to play. We still have to play at some difficult venues. I do not expect to get through clean the rest of the way. We were fortunate against Oakmont and again with Del Oro.” The spoiler in the mix is Woodcreek, and the Timberwolves are already hard at work as they seek to make the race interesting down the stretch. After going 0-6 in the first half, Woodcreek delivered a blow to Rocklin Thursday night, knocking off the Thunder 3-2 to drop Rocklin to 4-3 and into the midst of a race for the final two playoff spots. “This loss really opens up the second and third playoff spot in our league,” Depue said. “It is going to be a dogfight down to the wire to get into the playoffs this year.” Rocklin (4-3) and Del Oro (3-3-1) are in the mix, and with Oakmont sitting fifth, the remaining games on the SFL schedule are sure to be intense battles as playoff spots will be on the line each and every night. The Thunder appear to be the most talented team in that group, with a strong defense and the ability to score goals in bunches. Rocklin dropped five on Oakmont and four on Roseville the first time around, but does not anticipate the same ease in the rematches as those teams set their sites on getting past Rocklin. “I am relieved to be at the halfway point of the season but any mistakes down the stretch and anyone can fall out of the playoff hunt fast,” Depue said. The Golden Eagles had Granite Bay on the ropes Thursday, but could not deliver the knockout punch, giving Del Oro two hard-luck losses in three days that drop it from second to fourth position over a two-game swing. “It happens almost every year,” said Del Oro coach Dave Shiro in talking about the bunching in the middle of the SFL. “A frustrating league to play in, but I would have no other. We all make each other team better. There are no real easy games here, and that is not true of the other leagues in the area.” Nevada Union may have just one league win, as does Woodcreek, but both will not lay down in key games, so there are no days off in the SFL. The battle for those final two postseason berths is likely to go down to the wire. “And of course, we will be hoping for the classic SFL upsets to help us rather than hurt us,” Shiro said. “Time will tell.”