FULLERTON — Twenty-two years can diminish even the most novel sense of urgency. But Orange Coast College assistant men's soccer coach Glenn Strachan certainly wasn't willing to use that as an excuse.
The Pirates, hoping to clinch their first Orange Empire Conference championship since 1991, waited their sweet time to unleash maximum intensity in a 1-1 tie at Fullerton on Tuesday. OCC erased a 1-0 deficit in the 89th minute to salvage a valuable point in the standings.
The deadlock pared the Pirates' conference lead from four points to two with one game remaining. But all OCC (10-4-3, 9-2-2 in conference) needs to do is win at seventh-place Norco (7-11-1, 2-9-1) to end a title drought older than all but one of the Pirates' players.
Santa Ana (13-4-3, 8-2-3) must win and hope for an OCC loss to climb past the Pirates and earn its 18th conference crown in 19 seasons, with a points system based on three points for a conference win and one for a tie.
Should OCC tie, Santa Ana could earn a share of the title with a victory, but the Dons would settle for second with anything less.
"I told the guys nothing is easy in life and it wasn't going to be easy to come here to beat [the Hornets]," said Strachan, who basically runs the men's program while men's and women's coach Kevin Smith concentrates on the women's team. "Norco is a tough place to play, but we have to come out with more intensity for the whole game and not just the last 15 minutes."
OCC had won six straight matches, all in conference by a combined margin of 16-3 entering Tuesday. Included in that run, which began after a 0-0 tie with Fullerton on Oct. 18, was a 2-1 triumph over second-place Santa Ana on Friday at home and a 4-1 trouncing of visiting Norco on Oct. 22. The Pirates extended their unbeaten streak to eight games on Tuesday.
But it was Fullerton which appeared to be playing with more confidence and purpose for most of the first 75 minutes.
"We just weren't playing like it was a game to win the conference," said OCC sophomore forward Jorge Sanchez, who scored his team's lone goal and nearly netted an assist in the final seconds that would have sent the Pirates home with championship grins. "In the last 15 minutes, we started pressing the ball, winning the first and second balls and putting balls in the box and having chances."
Sanchez, a Costa Mesa High product, finished one such chance, set up when freshman forward Brice Manning, out of Newport Harbor High, ran onto a through ball near the right sideline. Manning sent a cross in front of the net where Sanchez had beaten his defender to the six-yard line. Sanchez poked in the pass for an easy goal to erase a deficit incurred when Fullerton (10-6-4, 5-4-4) scored on a breakaway in the 41st minute.
Just about a minute after Sanchez's goal, he sent a cross from the left wing in front, where teammate Thales Serra, a sophomore forward from Brazil, had sprinted in position to potentially finish for the win. But just as Serra gained possession and managed to get off a shot, the Fullerton defender, as they had all game, closed to get a piece of the near-point-blank offering, which was collected by sprawling goalkeeper Jonathan Negrete for the save.
"It was where we wanted the ball, on [Serra's] left foot inside six [yards]," Strachan said.
Sanchez' goal gave him seven for the season to go with five assists, the exact totals that Serra has produced.
Strachan credited both Sanchez and Serra for their strong play Tuesday, as well as the work of goalkeeper Nathan Brown, a freshman who finished with five saves, one fewer than Negrete.
Both teams had 12 shots apiece.
OCC also received strong defensive work from freshmen Josh Madrid and Blake Mooney, as well as sophomore Glenn Hollingshead.
Strachan said the Pirates will aim to take care of business Friday, setting up a jubilant ride home.
"I hope it's going to be better than this [ride home from Fullerton], because this one is going to be quiet," Strachan said.