The Kent-Meridian Royals are in the boys soccer state tournament for the first time since 1982 after beating Bainbridge 1-0.
“It’s awesome,” said Kent-Meridian coach Brian Gabert of the May 11 victory. “I coach because I love the game and the kids have been awesome… These kids are very passionate about soccer and it makes my life way easier.”
“After the final whistle I started crying,” senior captain Julian Rangel said. “I grew up with most of these guys… It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Kent-Meridian plays Ballard in the first round of the Class 3A tournament at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 17, at Interbay Stadium in a loser-out game. The winner plays at Shorewood on Thursday, May 18.
The last time the Royals made the state tournament was in 1981, according to records at the high school and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA). The Royals broke a 42-year state tournament drought this season.
Gabert has been coaching for 18 seasons at Kent-Meridian. This is his first state tournament appearance and he wants to make an impact.
“I’m checking myself because I want to make a long run,” he said. “I’m checking my emotions because this is our next season. I don’t want to be one and done … I want to make a really long run.”
The Royals won their third consecutive district tournament game taking down Bainbridge in a winner-to-state game at Stadium High School.
“We had a game plan from start to finish and stuck with it. We knew our opportunities to score goals would come and they did,” Rangel said.
Bainbridge came into the contest with a record of 17-2 while the Royals entered with a 7-4-7 record. To say the Royals were underdogs may have been an understatement. The Royals entered as the North Puget Sound League (NPSL) second-seeded team, and Thomas Jefferson was the top seed. Bainbridge beat the Raiders 3-0 on its way to face the Royals. Kent-Meridian’s last game against TJ ended in a 1-0 loss.
That game against the Raiders was one of the turning points this season, Gabert said.
“My mantra has been you gotta suffer,” Gabert said. “Games are going to be close, you’re going to have missed opportunities.”
Kent-Meridian was one game away from state in the 2022 season, but lost back-to-back games against Bonney Lake and Central Kitsap. This team rose to the occasion this year and beat a tough team.
“They’re a part of a legacy program. Brothers and sisters have come here and they’ve been close … We’ve played really good teams. It’s about getting over those little hurdles, controlling your emotions and playing some good soccer,” Gabert said.
The first half was highly competitive, with the Royals having great opportunities to get their first goal in the game, but unable to finish. At halftime, the two sides went scoreless.
“We had opportunities in the first half. I would have liked to see us get one or two there. I just kept telling them to keep doing what we’re doing,” Gabert said.
Gabert thinks one of the reasons the Royals stuck with the Spartans was they played frustrating soccer.
“This team has certain patterns and they were getting frustrated because we were breaking up those patterns. They couldn’t exert their will on us, which was nice because they had to bend to us,” Gabert said.
Royals sophomore Irving Baca-Silva created a chance that led to a Bainbridge handball inside the penalty area. Baca-Silva was the Royal to take the penalty kick, and his team had full faith in him.
“He’s been in a lot of similar situations. Everybody trusts him to hit those things. There was no doubt,” Gabert said.
Of course, he slotted it perfectly in the right corner of the goal for what would be the game-winning goal.
“I had absolute confidence. He gained a lot of experience last year as a freshman,” Rangel said.
The Royals have not allowed a goal in the postseason, something that no other team has done in the West Central District Tournament. One of the reasons for that clean sheet streak is junior Andres Zuluaga.
“He’s special… He’s at a different level, he can take away so much… Not only is he a good defender, he’s so good on the ball like ‘oh my god,’” Gabert said.