Estancia High boys' soccer coach Robert Castellano said his star sophomore forward Kevin Pizarro has been in a bit of a slump lately.
Pizarro scored nine goals in the Eagles' first 10 games. In the Orange Coast League, though, he scored just one goal in the first six games.
Don't tell cross-town rival Costa Mesa that Pizarro has struggled. The Mustangs probably wouldn't believe it.
Pizarro burned them for two second-half goals as the Eagles won the second Battle for the Bell game, 3-0, on Wednesday evening at Jim Scott Stadium. Estancia's second win over its rival this year means the Eagles take back the bell, which was won by Mesa last year.
Estancia (11-4-4, 4-1-2 in league) also stays in league contention. The Eagles sit in third place with three games to go, two points behind first-place Laguna Beach (5-1-1 in league) and a point behind Godinez (4-0-3).
The Eagles, searching for their first league title since 2010, play host to Saddleback on Friday. They then play Godinez on Tuesday at Centennial Park in a big game, before closing the regular season at home against Calvary Chapel on Feb. 13.
"If we play how we played today, play hard and we actually show up, we can take league this year," Pizarro said.
Estancia kept getting called for offsides early in Wednesday's tilt, despite the best efforts of senior midfielder Jorge Mendoza to set up his team with scoring chances. But the Eagles' first goal came late in the first half on a set piece.
Sophomore Andy Ceja, who scored the only goal in the Eagles' 1-0 win over Mesa on Jan. 15, did it again on a free kick. His strike from 27 yards out from the left went cross-cage, finding the upper-right corner of the goal.
The Eagles had the 1-0 halftime advantage. Costa Mesa (1-12-2, 1-6) nearly tied it early in the second half, after freshman Jayson Calderon got a good look from the right side of the box. The shot went just wide left.
Estancia took advantage almost immediately. In the 49th minute, Pizarro perfectly struck a ball from up top into the right corner of the goal. Twenty minutes later, his shot from the right side of the box, coming off a deflected crossing attempt, again found the back of the net. Pizarro's team-best 12th goal of the season gave the Eagles a commanding 3-0 lead.
Pizarro nearly had the first hat trick of his high school career, as he got past the charging Mesa keeper in the final minutes. But he couldn't get a shot off.
"He has something different than a lot of the guys," Castellano said. "Usually, the best players kind of take plays off, but Kevin's always hustling, always coming back to help. He has a short temper, but it's because he's so competitive. He's one of the most competitive players I've ever coached ... It's scary that he's only a sophomore."
Castellano also credited junior defender Christian Monroy and senior defensive midfielder Marco Pineda, calling them the heart of the team. They combined all night to limit the Mustangs' scoring chances, requiring goalie Enrique Valle to make just four saves.
Costa Mesa split its goalies by half, and seniors Salvador Sanchez and Brandon Menes combined for 12 saves. Senior defender Alexis Herrera, a team captain, excelled in the back but sat dejectedly on the ground minutes after the final whistle blew. Second-year coach Amos Hernandez knew why. He said the Mustangs' other senior captain, Julio Sanchez, had his appendix taken out two weeks ago and is out for the season.
"They knew it was going to be a rough year, but they still bought into the program," Hernandez said of the captains. "For them, you feel bad ... We lost our leaders [from last year], we lost our captains. We knew that this year we were going to have to rebuild and go younger. I've got a lot of freshman and a lot of sophomores, and I give them a lot of playing time. We knew we were going to take our lumps."
Castellano said he has respect for the program that Hernandez is building, adding that Costa Mesa always plays his Eagles tough. But now, the Eagles can move focus to the league title.
They don't control their own destiny. They need Laguna Beach to either lose or tie at least one of its final three games to catch up.
"We can't really worry about that, we just worry about ourselves," Castellano said. "I believe that if we win our three games, we'll win league. That's what I told the kids. I told them luck will go our way if we win those three games."