Of all the games North Clackamas Christian School's soccer team has played this season, Tuesday's performance was worthy of five stars.
Yes, even after the Saints surrendered the first goal, they were that good.
Junior forward John Wang had three goals and an assist, and keeper Hadden Stark stopped four of Grand View Christian Academy's five shots on goal, leading the Saints to a 6-1 home win over the Eagles in Oregon City.
Landon Meuser, Luke Nelson, and Breanna Steele also scored goals for the Saints, who ran their winning streak to four games while taking an important step toward a possible 1A Special District 7 championship playoff berth.
"That was the best match we've played this year," Saints coach Rick Mudrow said. "We tend to have lulls. Every team does. But the focus stayed good tonight, end to end.
"There were a couple of times when they weren't talking quite as much as we'd like and just little things, but really nothing to complain about."
Grand View's Aaron Montes scored the game's first goal in the 22nd minute, but the initial salvo may have done more to light a fire under NCC's offense than it helped the Eagles' cause.
Nelson scored the equalizer with an assist from Wang in the 25th minute, and then the Saints erupted for three more goals in the final six minutes of the first half to break the game open.
"We were hoping to keep it close and make something good happen," Eagles coach T.J. Gardiner said. "Getting that first goal was huge and, really, we thought we had something going. Then North Clackamas scored three goals in about five minutes and it went from being 1-1 to 4-1 and…
"We've got a few injuries and we're missing a couple of our better players. At the beginning of the season, we were hoping to be a top-four team, but with the injuries, I think we're just finding out that we're not."
The top four teams from the regular season advance to 1A Special District 7 championship playoff to determine the league title, while the teams the finish fifth through eighth advance to a separate playoff bracket for the consolation/fifth-place title.
When the week started, Columbia Christian, Crosshill Christian, and Damascus Christian had a virtual lock on the top three spots, leaving Grand View, NCC, and Livingstone Adventist in a three-way battle for the fourth spot.
Grand View's hopes for a top-four finish suffered a serious blow when Monday's road game against Central Christian in Redmond ended in a 2-2 tie, turning Tuesday's game at NCC into a must-win situation if the Eagles wanted to avoid dropping into the "next four."
In addition to the tough turnaround, the Eagles also were without injured senior defender Franc Mock (knee) and freshman midfielder Nic Grigorov (knee), yet they went toe-to-toe with NCC for a solid 30 minutes before their game fell apart.
"A lot of that was just intensity, aggression, and heart," Gardiner said of Tuesday's start. "Monday night, we played a team that we should have destroyed and we left with a tie. I talked with the boys for probably 20 minutes after the game about playing with heart and intensity.
"It's not always about skill. Sometimes it's just about how hard you're playing, so I had them really pumped up and ready for today's game."
Montes, the Eagles' freshman midfielder, scored the game's first goal when he drove a shot from the top of the 16-yard box that banged off the left post and past a diving Hadden in the 22nd minute.
Just like that, the school from three miles down the road on Highway 213 had the Saints' attention.
"When Grand View comes here, we know it's going to be a contest," Mudrow said. "My warning to the team was that we had to keep them on their heels, because if we allowed Grand View to the lead, we'd have trouble beating this team.
"That first goal was a wake-up call for us."
NCC answered three minutes later when Wang drove the ball down the right wing and sent a cross into the middle of the 16 where Nelson was waiting to send a header inside the right post to make it 1-1.
In the 34th minute, Steele made a run down the left wing and sent a cross into the box for Nelson, whose header hit the crossbar and caromed to Meuser for an easy put-back that gave the Saints a 2-1 lead.
"That kind of intensity where they're in fighting for every possession is dangerous for a defense," Mudrow said of the go-ahead goal. "When they're not getting control of what's going on in front of the net, at some point it's going in the net."
The Saints struck again in the 38th minute with a ball that started on the left wing with Steele, then passed through the middle of the box to Tyler Burch, and finally ended up near the right post where Wang banged it home to make it 3-1.
Grand View keeper Logan Hensley was shaken up on the scoring play and was replaced by Andrew Park, who received a rude welcome when Wang scored on another cross from the left wing to the far post in the 40th minute, pushing the lead to 4-1.
The second-half scoring was more of the same — Nelson sending two separate crosses from the right wing to an open teammate near the far post, the first going to Wang in the 47th minute, and the other going to Steele in the 67th minute.
"You've got to give North Clackmas a lot of credit," Gardiner said. "They figured out that if they crossed a ball to the back post, our outside defense on the opposite side just wasn't there.
"We haven't seen that a lot, but I think tonight four of their six goals were off crosses to the back post."
The Saints improved to 5-3-1 overall and 3-3 in league play heading into Thursday's 4:15 p.m. home match with Willamette Valley Christian. Grand View fell to 3-4-1 in league play and is off until Tuesday when the Eagles play Livingstone Adventist at Claggett Creek Park in Keizer.
"With this win, I think the message it sends to the league is that we're here to play," Mudrow said. "At least, that's what I'm hoping the message is."
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