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South tops Hays High in regional final

By ARNE GREEN

Special to The Hays Daily News

SALINA -- Even when they played with fire, the history-making Salina South Cougars remained red hot.

After spotting Hays High a one-goal lead just 10 seconds in, the Cougars scored the next three Thursday night on the way to a 4-2 victory over the Indians in the Class 5A Central/South Central Region 4 championship game at Salina Stadium.

It was the first-ever regional title for South, which improved to 13-4-1 while advancing to next Tuesday's state quarterfinals. The fourth-seeded Cougars will travel to Wichita to face either No. 1 seed Bishop Carroll or No. 3 Kapaun-Mt. Carmel for a final four berth at state.

"It's really exciting," said South sophomore forward Jose Escobedo, who scored the go-ahead goal before halftime and set up Robert Zatarain's score that made it 3-1 midway through the second half. "I'm speechless.

"I'm really happy to be going (to the quarterfinals), but it will be a tough game. I've never been to state, so we'll see how this goes."

The Cougars got off to an inauspicious start when Hays High (7-11) rushed down the right flank with Shawn Herrman crossing to Jordan Windholz for a breakaway. Windholz got free behind the South defense again in the 12th minute, only to be denied by goalkeeper Ethan Bandre.

That's when the Cougars went to work, equalizing in the next minute when Escobedo tried to split a pair of Hays defenders to the right of goal and the ball deflected back to Gonzalo Avila-Castro. Avila-Castro hit the ball with the outside of his right foot, bending it into the top left corner of the net.

"Coach told me before I went in the game to bring the energy that I usually do," said Avila-Castro, who also assisted on Victor Escalante's goal in the 75th minute that sealed the victory. "I knew I had to make an impact, and the first time in on my first touch I did.

"(Escobedo) tried to take it in, but they had three guys marking him and it bounced back to me. I saw the opening and it went right where I wanted."

Escobedo, who scored all four South goals in Tuesday's first-round victory over Great Bend, put the Cougars ahead for good in the 32nd minute when he ran onto a ball through the center from Jose Ponce and rolled it under Hays keeper Sheldon Sulzman inside the right post.

"Ponce sent it and the defender missed clearing it," Escobedo said. "The goalie was running out and most people would try to chip him, but I went straight underneath him.

"When I shot it, he just jumped."

The Cougars, who struggled to find a rhythm in the Great Bend game, were much sharper with the ball against Hays.

"We worked on possession only Wednesday in practice," South coach Dave Ouderkirk said. "I also think we're getting a feel for the playoffs, knowing we need to go out and do the things we've done all year.

"Tonight we settled down and did a nice job. We definitely connected better."

It was a connection between Escobedo and Zatarain that gave South some breathing room in the 64th minute. First Ponce played the ball down the left side to Escobedo, who spotted Zatarain directly in front of goal inside the 6-yard box.

"I told Boo Boo (Escobedo) if I got a ball from him in front of the goal, I'd settle myself first and shoot it.

"I stopped it with my right foot and struck it with my left."

Hays did get back in the game in the 74th minute, again on a Windholz breakaway, when Lane Clark sent a ball forward diagonally to his right into the penalty area. Windholz ran on and placed it inside the left post.

But South needed just one minute to answer and put the game out of reach on another combination started by Ponce on the left wing. Ponce sent the ball across and Avila-Castro dropped it in front to Escalante, who blasted it inside the left post.

"I'm very excited," said Zatarain, a senior who was cut from the Salina Central team as a freshman before moving away for a couple of years, then returning to Salina. "This is my first varsity team, so this proves a lot to myself and to others."

In other Central/South Central regional finals Thursday, Carroll beat Goddard 4-0 and Kapaun beat Liberal in overtime, 2-1. If No. 2 seed Maize South knocks off Andover today, South will play at Carroll in the quarterfinals, while a Maize South loss would send the Mustangs to face Kapaun.