Team of the Year: Better than fiction – Bulls script near-perfect finish

By Richard Greene | Published Saturday, July 1, 2017
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Team of the Year

Coach Ben Parks and the Bridgeport Bulls soccer team. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Walking onto the sun-splashed field in Georgetown to the roar of the crowd, Bridgeport senior Efrain DeLuna struggled to grasp reality.

This read too much like a Hollywood screenplay with only a tinge of true events.

In reality, new programs don’t win district titles in their first two years. They don’t pull off dramatic comebacks to go unbeaten in district. They don’t beat an established state tournament team to secure a trip to state. They don’t play for a 4A soccer state title.

“It didn’t feel real. There were cameras in our face and with the fans we felt like professional athletes,” DeLuna said.

“You couldn’t write it any better.”

Despite the dreamlike or magical feel of the trip to the state final, Bridgeport coach Ben Parks knew this was not a work of fiction.

“There was nothing fictional about what the kids did. Everything was real, especially their dedication,” Parks said.

“A lot of people would tell you it’s a storybook year with a second-year program making the state final, but that takes away from what the kids put into it. The success they had was because of the hard work they put in every day.”

The near-perfect script sculpted by the Bulls, full of thrilling, dramatic, heart-pounding moments that ended with an epic duel in the searing sun and a 4A state runner-up trophy, made them the Wise County Team of the Year for 2016-17.

“It wasn’t expected for us to get there. We had a great region tournament and then semifinal,” DeLuna said. “All of us couldn’t ask for a better year, especially the seniors.”

A trip to Georgetown and even success in the postseason looked more than far-fetched in February for the Bulls. After graduating their leading scorer from the year before, Bridgeport started the 3-4A schedule with a pair of ties and trailed rival Decatur with less than two minutes to go in the first of three meetings.

DeLuna then changed the narrative for the night, finding a loose ball in the box with 1:24 remaining and booting the ball into the net, tying the score at 2-2 for a draw to keep Bridgeport unbeaten in district.

“We never gave up as a team. In soccer anything can happen. We kept fighting ’til the end,” DeLuna said.

That mantra carried Bridgeport through the rest of 3-4A, going undefeated at 5-0-4. The Bulls made a dramatic comeback with a pair of late goals to beat Wichita Falls Hirschi. Bridgeport secured the program’s second district crown with a 2-2 draw against Decatur on the strength of Juan Amador’s goal just inside the left post in the 34th minute.

“After those first three ties for us to be district champs, we had to focus and work together. We never gave up,” Amador said. “It was our leaders and captains Miguel Olmos and Eric Aguilar that kept telling us to keep working as a team.”

Bridgeport returned to the playoffs with a feeling of unfinished business after falling in the area round the year before. That showed through dominating wins in the first three rounds – 5-1 over Brownwood, 7-3 over Borger, and 3-0 against Burkburnett – to earn a spot at the region tournament.

Playing a talented squad from Dallas Life Oak Cliff in the 4A Region I semifinal, Amador scored a pair of goals in the opening 10 minutes. But after Life Oak Cliff cut Bridgeport’s three-goal lead to one, 4-3, Amador moved into goal for the second half. He made a huge save to preserve the win.

Aguilar provided the first of several heroic moments in the playoff run. With an open goal behind him, he stopped a ball in the box with his head to prevent the equalizer.

“Eric was holding the team together,” DeLuna said. “Him and Miguel were the backbone of the team and made us go. Eric saved us four games in a row.”

Aguilar, a two-time state qualifier in cross country, kept the team on an even keel while delivering in the big moments.

“If I could vote on athlete of the year, it would be him. He could play every position and was willing to play every position,” Parks said. “At the center of our defense is where he was needed. He went there without hesitation. He’s a soft-spoken kid that leads by example and just a tremendous kid.”

To get to the state tournament, the Bulls needed to get by the 2015 state champions – San Elizario. Aguilar helped pave the way, booting in a goal off an assist from Olmos after DeLuna drew a penalty. Aguilar then made another empty-goal clear to preserve the 2-1 victory and send the Bulls to Georgetown.

The bright lights of the state proved not to be too big for the Bulls.

Olmos and Amador found the back of the net in the second half and the Bulls turned in another brilliant defensive effort to take down 2016 state runner-up Progreso 2-0 in the Class 4A semifinal at Birkelbach Field to earn a spot in the state final.

Two days later in the heat of the day, Bridgeport took the field for the epic, final scene with a showdown against Kilgore for the 4A title.

Hundreds of fans from Bridgeport made the near four-hour trip to Georgetown chanting “Vamos Toros” and “When the Bulls go charging in.”

Almost immediately, the Bulls found themselves behind 2-0 after 12 minutes. Bridgeport was outshot 25-10 in the match. But the Bulls wouldn’t buckle or go away.

An Olmos penalty kick and Amador goal tied the game in the 29th minute.

For the next 71 minutes, the two battled to standstill and forced the title game to be settled on penalty kicks.

With the title on the line, the Bulls turned to captain Aguilar to take over in the goal. Aguilar, who made a game-saving clear at the line in the second overtime period, got his hands on the ball on the first attempt before it trickled past him.

The game’s MVP and Kilgore goalie Kaleb Jett made a pair of stops before Raul Cedillo found the net for the fourth goal of the shootout, and Kilgore captured the 4A crown, 3-2 (4-2 on penalty kicks).

After the game, tears started to flow as the Bulls accepted their silver medals and the state runner-up trophy. Parks handed the trophy to Aguilar and then pointed back to a still cheering crowd, raising his arms into the air to rally his troops.

“I wanted them to see what they accomplished,” Parks said. “At that point, there was heartache and tears. But they needed to remember what they accomplished. Once the dust settles, they will still be remembered for playing for a state title in just their second year.”

That final moment on Birkelbach Field is the Hollywood ending that will stick with DeLuna forever.

“It was a priceless feeling. Coach Parks told us to look back at what we have done and look at the crowd we brought there from Bridgeport,” DeLuna said. “We may not have won the state title that day, but we won something.”

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