But the Railroaders finally got that monkey off their back this past fall after winning the school’s first boys soccer state championship, finishing with a 23-1-1 record on the year.
The perseverance that this team showed in order to end a streak of back-to-back runner-up finishes at state has earned the Sparks boys soccer team the recognition of the 2011-12 Sparks Tribune’s Male Team of the Year.
“They’re very hard workers, especially this group of seniors over the past four years,” Sparks boys soccer coach Frank Avilla said. “We have a tradition here and they really bit into it. It’s been a pleasure and a surprise really to see them really bite in the way they did. They willed themselves to overcome a lot of obstacles from injuries to grades to everything. It’s a tribute to them. This group of seniors was a great group of leaders.
“I can’t say enough about Noe Espana and Mitchell Garcia with how they took charge of the team and pretty much helped us throughout the year. Then you had Edgar Casillas who stepped in and realized his potential.”
It was a season of firsts this year as the Railroaders won Galena’s preseason tourney, a regular season league crown and state all for the first time. If Sparks had defended its regional championship, it also would have meant the team would have gone undefeated this fall. However, the shootout loss to Truckee in the Northern 3A final probably did some good.
When the Railroaders tangled with the Wolverines again for the state championship, Sparks knew it couldn’t take its opponent lightly and it was a battle to the bitter end as senior Roger Garcia’s header with under 15 minutes to go stood up in the 1-0 Sparks triumph.
“As a senior, to be ineligible for two years and try to get my grades up, I focused on school. Everybody was doubting me, and then I focused on school and got my grades up and made it to state,” senior goalkeeper Mitchell Garcia said. “I just played all out that game. Roger scored the winning goal, and he’s my cousin too, so that was good feeling.”
It’s very much a family affair in Sparks boys soccer. Espana, the 3A North Sierra League’s Defensive Player of the Year, was able to share that experience with his older brother, Chava. Chava was an assistant coach this year and was an offensive standout for the Maroon and Gold when Sparks won its first boys soccer regional championship in 2005.
“That was amazing. When he was here, he was a Zone champion,” Noe Espana said. “It was really cool to win a state championship with him right there along side of us. He was a big reason I played the way I played. He pushed me and the other seniors to our limits to get where we had to get.”
Casillas was named the Midfielder of the Year of the 3A North‘s Sierra League.
Eric Ojeda and Ruben Pacheco were first-team all-league forwards, while Hector Hernandez was a first team midfielder.
On the second team, the Railroaders got forward Roger Garcia and defensive midfielder Danny Cervantes honored.
Rounding out Sparks’ all-leaguers were honorable mention midfielders Vicente Cervantes and Edgar Lara.
Those postseason awards compare little to the feeling of going out as champions.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s amazing we went to state for three years,” Noe Espana said. “We won state finally, and we also got a Zone championship and a league championship. Our coaching staff was great. The kids on our team this year really came together and pulled through. It was really an amazing.”
Sparks has already hung its championship banner. Mitchell Garcia and Noe Espana wanted to make sure that happened before they graduated
“It’s pretty cool. It’s one of the best feelings you’re ever going to have knowing you have a banner and when you come back, you get to see it every year,” Mitchell Garcia said.
With this year’s success, next year will bring some changes. For the first time in the program’s history, the Railroaders will have a target on their backs. But that won’t be the only difference.
When Avilla took over the program, he admittedly had very little soccer knowledge. Assistant coach Joel Martinez was there from Day 1 as the team’s tactical wizard and extra set of eyes during games. Martinez will be on a different sideline next year after taking the head coaching position at Reed High. Chava Espana will now be the main assistant coach and no one expects things to change too much.
“We just keep the traditions going every year. It’s like what Frank says. We have traditions, so we just keep those going. We never leave those behind,” Mitchell Garcia said.