Emmanuel Ruiz delivered a well-placed header off a direct kick with 10 minutes remaining, breaking a 2-all tie to send the Storm to the Class 5A championship game Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
“I just saw the ball and headed it. That’s about it,” Ruiz said with a shrug. “Honestly, I just hit it. Luck. It was luck more than anything.”
Nevertheless, the fortunate hit from Ruiz, who finished off the 30-yard service from Dominic Aguilar following a foul, continued an improbable Cleveland (12-8-4) streak of three straight postseason upsets on the road.
“We got on a little roll,” coach Shaun Gill said. “The boys are confident and we’re playing well. We’re peaking right at the right time.”
Playing for the blue trophy on Cleveland’s home field, Gill said, will be “a big motivator,” Gill said. “They really wanted to play their last game at home and we are.”
The host of Wednesday’s semifinal, the No. 1 the Hawks (15-2-3) went 2-0-1 against the Storm in the regular season. But each game was tight, with the two victories coming by one-goal margins.
So Cleveland knew they could hang with their 1-5A foe and just needed to make a few tweaks to be dangerous.
“We looked at some of their tendencies and how they’re going to attack,” Gill said. “More than anything we wanted to eliminate our mistakes and that’s what we did. We know they’re a high-powered offensive team and we just tried to work on our defense and eliminate our mistakes.”
After trading goals midway through the first half, Cleveland took the lead into halftime when Evan McNamara volleyed a ball from about 35 yards out after it had bounced around and out following a corner kick. The unlikely shot turned out to be perfectly placed into the far upper corner above goalkeeper Jacob Schreiner’s outstretched arms.
The Hawks got the equalizer in the 55th minute on a Jovany Orona shot that somehow rolled its way in through traffic in front of goal.
But then Ruiz cashed in a bit of luck.
“Honestly, being the 12th seed, even making it (to the state tournament) was a big deal,” he said. “We know we played good during the district, but not good enough to get a better seed. So to make it all the way here is a pretty big deal.”
Cleveland will play No. 2 Centennial (20-1-1), the District 3-5A champ, which beat No. 6 Santa Fe, 5-0, in Wednesday’s other semifinal game, played in Las Cruces.
The Storm played Centennial at Lightning Bolt Stadium on Aug. 20, their second game of the year, and lost, 3-2.