Cesar Salcido extended his body as far as he could. It turned out to be just far enough to send Gainesville’s boys soccer team forward in the playoffs.
Salcido’s acrobatic second-chance goal in the 58th minute was the deciding factor Wednesday for fourth-ranked Gainesville, which overcame an early deficit to defeat Cambridge 2-1 in the first round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs at City Park Stadium in Gainesville.
Salcido’s goal was set up on a free kick by teammate Alex Ochoa. Cambridge’s keeper made a leaping save of Ochoa’s long shot on goal but fell to the ground and couldn’t recover in time to stop Salcido from blasting a shot into the net while falling to the turf himself.
“As soon as I dipped in (on the free kick) the goalkeeper let (the ball get away from him),” said Salcido, a senior. “I was already running in that direction. It bounced a bit, but I stretched as much as possible and put it back in there.”
The Region 8-AAAAA champion Red Elephants (14-3) extended their winning streak to 11 games and advance to host third-ranked Greenbrier in the second round May 6 in Gainesville.
Gainesville spent most of the first half playing catch-up after Zach Midula put Region 7 No. 4 seed Cambridge (11-6-1) on top in the 20th minute, when he took possession of the ball on the left side of the field following a corner kick, then sent an angled shot into the right side of the net.
Five minutes later, the Red Elephants began to dominate possession.
“It was starting to click,” Gainesville coach Rick Howard said. “I thought we played too much in front of them (at first). We didn’t get behind them as much. The way they were organized defensively was to keep everyone in front, so what we wanted to do is keep that front line up a little bit, work the ball a little bit more and just try to take advantage of some of the stuff we saw.”
But Gainesville’s domination of possession didn’t pay off in those final 15 minutes before halftime. The Red Elephants created three scoring opportunities during a four-minute stretch late in the first half only to have the ball sail over the center of the crossbar each time.
“(Coach Howard) was like, ‘Y’all have to step it up,’" junior Omar Perez said of the team’s halftime talk. “'That goal is coming, just keep on going and just stay calm.’”
Gainesville finally found the equalizer just over three minutes into the second half.
Erik Bonilla headed a corner kick toward the left corner of the goal, and although Cambridge’s goalkeeper stopped the bouncing ball before it reached the net, it had already crossed the line.
“It picked our moods up,” Perez said of the goal. “We were upset once we got down in the first half. Once we got that first goal, we knew that we could go up and we could beat them.”
Gainesville continued to control possession, and it paid off a second time when Salcido scored his goal just over 14 minutes after Bonilla’s.
Cambridge created a few desperation scoring attempts of its own in the closing minutes of their game, but the Bears’ best chance — a three on two advantage with just over two minutes remaining — was thwarted when Gainesville goalkeeper Chandler Staton came out and made a sliding save that knocked the ball away.
“All these kids are hard workers,” Howard said. “They’re not going to quit and I think we showed that tonight.
“We didn’t expect an easy game and you don’t want an easy game your first game. ... That game told us a lot about my team that in the next four or five practices, we’ve got to work on.”
Gainesville junior Diego Porras had to be helped off the field and did not return after sustaining a leg injury four minutes into the second half. Howard said he did not know the severity of the injury or whether Porras will be available for the Red Elephants’ second-round game.