LAKE ELSINORE — By its players' own admission, this Lakeside High boys soccer team is not without flaws. One might even say this Lancers team is more imperfect than some others that came before it.
But timing is everything, and when the time came, the Lancers got it right. On the strength of four consecutive one-goal victories, Lakeside on Saturday will play for the first CIF Southern Section championship in school history. The Division V title game against top-seeded San Bernardino Cajon is at 9:30 a.m. at Downey Warren High.
The Lancers' road to the final was littered with roadblocks. Take their unassuming and unflappable goalkeeper, for example.
Sophomore Jose Chavez has gotten better and better in goal as the season has progressed. He has 15 saves and just one goal allowed in the Lancers' last two playoff victories, after enduring a year in which he broke his nose early and separated his shoulder in the second-to-last Sunbelt League game.
He isn't the tallest goalkeeper around, but what he lacks in height, he makes up for in resiliency. Even busted up, he still found a way to help his team.
"He never stopped coming," Lakeside coach Colin Gilliland said. "He shagged balls if needed — he was always here, even hurt.
"Of course, the guys poked fun at him, what with his nose and everything."
Chavez's season was supposed to end after he suffered the injury in December, but five weeks later, he returned in a 2-0 shutout of Elsinore as the Lancers, who had lost six times to that point, needed a lift.
"They told me I would miss the whole season," Chavez said, "but I wound up coming back early, like three or four weeks before I was supposed to be back."
The Lancers are glad he did. He played soundly down the stretch, and in Tuesday's semifinal victory over Colton, he made a save on a late penalty kick — something he did four times in bracket play when the Lancers won the Hesperia Oak Hills tournament in December — to preserve the victory.
"He's 5-5, maybe 5-6, but he's got spring in his shoes, and he's really quick," Gilliland said. "He's technically sound — you're not going to beat him in silly ways."
Strong talent is nothing new for this bunch.
Lakeside (16-7-5) always seems to be loaded with skilled players. This year, for example, Gilliland says he has 11 players with club or academy experience.
But that also means he has had to roll with the punches as a high school coach competing for players against club and academy personnel. Numerous players have left and come back; some, like standout senior forward Ivan Hernandez, left for an entire season before returning.
This year in particular, Gilliland wondered if his team would come together in time for the postseason. The Lancers lost twice in Sunbelt League play, tied two other league matches, and ceded the league title to Perris, snapping a string of three consecutive league crowns, including a two-loss campaign in 2011.
"We got into (this year's) playoffs," Gilliland said, "and I wasn't sure which team was going to show up. Was it the one that won a tournament early on, or the one that struggled in league?"
The Lancers defeated Rialto Carter and Paso Robles on the road in the first two rounds of the playoffs, then beat El Monte Mountain View in the quarterfinals despite being limited to just three shots on goal.
"I knew we were going to score goals, but I didn't know if we were going to be able to prevent other teams from scoring," Gilliland said. "And I didn't think it would be to the extent it was."
The defense will be put to the test Saturday. Cajon (23-4-5), the San Andreas League champion, has posted four consecutive playoff shutouts, winning by a combined score of 13-0. Cajon is led by senior Enrique Salazar (18 goals) and is coming off a 2-0 win over Apple Valley Granite Hills in the other semifinal.
"I'm really excited, and I'm motivated to go win it all," Chavez said. "It would mean a lot to win the first CIF championship in school history."