By Jeremy McDonald
STAYTON, Ore.– If it wasn’t known, by November 12, 2019 it was cemented. Jayden Esparza was one bad man on the pitch.
Playing opposite of Kevin Hernandez as a freshman, the now-Junior came into his own last season as a sophomore in leading a Stayton Eagle offense to 4A’s second-highest output in 2019 with 83 goals. The only team that had more was Woodburn with 96.
Both had met in the crash-course finale to the 4A Boys’ Soccer season following that faithful November night in Eugene.
In the 94th-minute in a scoreless tie with then-number one Marist, Esparza had separated his squad with his opposition with the go-ahead goal. His defense would hold the final six minutes to ensure the 1-0 score held that would put Stayton in their fourth State Title game in six years.
“It was very exciting, it was very hard, it was a great game. It was crazy,” said Esparza of that November night. “I’m still happy we got the ‘W’.”
Esparza, who won Oregon West Conference Player of the Year and also received first-team honors as a sophomore, and the Eagles met their match four-days later to the Bulldogs. Falling 1-0 in Woodburn’s final game in 4A in the battle of the two top soccer powers in the State at any classification.
The five battles between the ‘Dogs and Stayton in three-years saw the Eagles taking the series 3-2, but Woodburn had denied Stayton of their first State Title since 2010. For a strong soccer program like the Eagles, to face another in the Bulldogs those many times helped them move into hopefully this Spring season.
“With them in our league, we had to work harder. Work everyday in practice hard and just get up there. It helped us a lot,” said Esparza.
Stayton has had some strong front row players in years past. Esparza joins that list and is expecting to repeat as Player of the Year he said, setting the bar high. But as anyone in a Chris Shields-ran program, last year is last year and this year is this year. Going to five State Championships in the 2010’s speaks to moving on, learning and improving from that previous year.
“It’s not a lot of pressure for me because I don’t focus too much on last year. Like the new season, I just want to focus on this season and not trying to get anything into my head from last season,” Esparza said. “It keeps me grounded. For me, it’s pretty big. Just focus from here-on and try to get Player of the Year this year hopefully.
“Woodburn went back up; it’ll be a lot more different since last season. I feel like this season it’ll be more like communication, more active and I think this year we can make it up to the finals again. Practice hard, communicate and work hard and just be here every night.”