COSTA MESA — It was less than a marquee matchup, on the most remote field at Jack Hammett Sports Complex, played with the last of Friday's daylight, between two winless teams that had lost their first game by identical 5-0 margins.
Neither team had the luxury of a substitute and one squad — Sonora Elementary — was working with a fill-in coach who in order to better direct the players he had just met, attempted to hurriedly write their names on the backs of their light blue Daily Pilot Cup uniform T-shirts with a ball-point pen.
Yet the third- and fourth-grade boys' silver division soccer contest that unfolded between the California Cougars and the Sonora Eagles on Friday was, one might suggest, as good as the Pilot Cup can deliver.
California, with the benefit of a second-half lineup adjustment, prevailed, 3-1, and the victorious players were celebrated by a high-five line of parents and rooters.
Yet Sonora, which scored a late goal to make things interesting and battled relentlessly to the end, also had much to celebrate, as their tournament came to an end.
"You guys played awesome," said John Pardoen, who stepped in for regular Sonora coach Jose Chamu, who was guiding one of the two other teams he assumed command of for the 14th annual tournament on Friday. "We got a goal, which was huge. Our Pilot Cup is over for this season, but you guys will have plenty of soccer matches ahead of you in your lives."
It was Pardoen who attempted to use the 30-minute pregame warmup as a brief clinic on fundamentals, patiently encouraging and instructing his players despite their microwave attention spans and still-burgeoning coordination.
But it was the California players, in their charcoal T-shirts, who displayed more of a knack for the game once play began.
The Cougars, coached by current Estancia High player Ivan Morales and a trio of former Eagles players (Brian Martinez, Miguel Florentine and Anthony Pestrano) consistently controlled the flow of play, as well as possession. California, playing in front of principal and former Costa Mesa High baseball standout Matt Broesamle, compiled a 10-3 shot advantage.
But through the 25-minute first half, California had little but self-esteem to show for its dominance, as the game remained scoreless until the 27th minute.
Carter Gruebel, shifted from wing to the center of the forward line at halftime, proved to be much more dangerous in his new assignment. He opened the scoring by booting in a deflection off a shot by California's Anthony Abac.
Five minutes later, Gruebel finished a corner kick launched by Pedro Martinez that glanced off of Abac in front of the net.
Gruebel used his speed and size to create several more scoring chances, while Lucas Pacheco, Abac and Devin Brown, who played the first half in goal, were additional offensive catalysts for the winners.
"We needed to attack more and [Gruebel] is always attacking," Morales said. "We needed goals as soon as possible and he came up big with two."
Having managed just one shot in the first 43 minutes, Sonora cut the 2-0 deficit in half when Ken Figueroa lifted a shot inside the far post on a loose ball that began with a corner kick.
Jose Azevedo, Dennis Escobar, Max Spicer and Brian Balbuena all stood out for Sonora, which received three saves from pint-size goalkeeper Luis Sanchez. Spicer was particularly troublesome to California as he consistently cleared the ball from deep in his own territory to turn the Cougars away.
Micah Gniffke, Pacheco, and J.J. Osso made plays on defense for California, which received strong play from Matthew Duarte, who patrolled midfield in the first half, then took over in goal after intermission.
William Thomas also contributed for California.
"It's a good group of kids," said Morales, who later learned the Cougars failed to advance out of their pool. "They are always working hard in practice and it really showed today in the game."
Esteban Sanchez, Juan Noyola, Edwin Estrada, Charlie Anaya and Kyler Schumacher also chipped in for Sonora.