BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
Gio Arriaga is a senior who plays soccer for Tippecanoe Valley.
He also plays for the Warsaw Wave travel team during the summer. And then there are also those times when he goes out to a field by himself just to work on his dribbling or shooting or other skills with the ball.
But he also hones his game when he travels to visit his relatives in Guanajuato, a state in Mexico just northwest of Mexico City, during the summer. The fields are not as grassy and verdant as they are at the Brent Blacketor Memorial Sports Complex in Rochester, but there’s a level of play there that cannot easily be replicated here.
Arriaga showed off the skills that he has learned against the host Zebras Wednesday, scoring both goals in the second half to lead Valley to a 2-0 win.
Valley improved to 6-2-1. Rochester, who lost their fourth straight game, dropped to 3-6.
Eric Eikenberry, a senior who played his first two seasons at Rochester, assisted on the first goal, sending a through-ball to Arriaga, who warded off defender Grant Bailey and slid a low shot past Rochester goalkeeper Parker Wallace with 36:11 left.
The second goal came on a well-placed header finish inside the far post off a Carson Craft corner kick with 14:35 left.
Valley coach Trevor Brown said Rochester was the better team in the first half but said his team had better scoring opportunities in the second half. He told his players to take personal responsibility in the second half but to also be positive.
“In the first half, we really didn’t have any good looks,” Brown said. “The second half was much better. We did a better job controlling the ball in the second half. But, man, Parker Wallace is just an incredible goalkeeper. He made some crazy saves, just a ton of credit to him. And honestly, in the first half, Rochester completely outplayed us. They wanted the ball more. They communicated better. Tons of credit to their coaches and players. They came out with a great game plan and executed it well, and I tell you, at halftime, they were the better team for sure.”
Arriaga said the first goal was not easy. He had to contend with the swift Bailey trying to defend him while getting off a shot against Wallace, who was charging at him to try and cut off his angle.
“I got to run my hardest to beat the defender, and he was right on my hips,” Arriaga explained. “I mean, he’s pretty fast. And it was a difficult finish at the end because he also stuck his foot out. It was close.”
The header off the corner kick is a play that Arriaga and Craft practice all the time. Arriaga called Craft “one of the best players I’ve ever played with.”
It’s all part of his background in soccer.
“Even when I went to Mexico this summer, I played over there, just pick-up and everything,” Arriaga said. “It’s a real big thing for me. … My family’s from over there. … It’s so much different. First off, in Mexico, we’re not even playing on grass. It’s just mostly dirt, so it’s really hard to just get used to, and the level is so much harder over there. They all grew up playing together, and it was tough adapting to new teammates, but I really think it made me better.”
Officials cited two Rochester players for yellow cards for overly physical play in the first half, but coach Eric Backus remarked how ready his team was to play. Though they also lost to Peru 2-0 on Monday, he said the difference between the games was “night and day.”
“They played well,” Backus said of Valley. “Their defensive back line has been pretty solid all year. I feel like our boys finally came out with the energy ready to play the game. Finally. We’re nine games into the season, and it took the Valley game to get their effort to where it was great from the start.”
Senior Braden Krom’s assignment was simple: Mark Arriaga wherever he was on the field. Backus noted Krom; Wyatt Davis, whom he called “a beast;” and Wallace afterwards.
Wallace handled a bullet from Arriaga at the near post with 8:02 left in the half. Then there was a leaping stop on Kevin Marr’s shot headed towards the upper right corner of the goal. Then there was a diving stop on Eikenberry’s shot towards the far post from the right side with 31:35 left. And then there was another diving stop on Eikenberry with 8:25 left.
“He’s so good at when he gets the ball at his feet on a run,” Backus said of Arriaga. “He’s so good at just settling the ball and taking a rip. Parker played phenomenal tonight. He made three or four stops that should have been in the back of the goal. Any other goalie would have given that up. I was just proud of the way our kids played. That’s the one thing I told them: I said, ‘Be proud of this game. You guys played your butt off.’”
This marked Brown’s first game as the visiting coach at Blacketor. He was the Rochester coach from 2006-20, guiding it from a fledgling varsity program and eventually winning back-to-back sectional titles there in 2015 and 2016. His wife Stephanie is the Rochester swimming coach and a Rochester High School guidance counselor, and Brown still teaches in the Rochester schools.
He raved about Wallace in goal, and he noted how affably the players interacted after the match. In many ways, this was a meeting between the two soccer programs that Brown built.
“It was weird, man,” Brown said. “It was really weird. You know, I love both these teams. My son (Owen, a third grader) goes to Rochester. He loves soccer. He’ll eventually play here at Rochester, as of now. And I want this Rochester program to grow, and I want them to be good, and I want them to be high quality. And I want the same thing for Valley.
“So obviously, I want whatever team I’m coaching to win, but I hope these programs continue to grow and get better. And here’s what I love: You look around… after a tough, physical, hard-fought game, and you’ve got kids from Valley and Rochester hanging out and some guys that had some hard fouls on each other in the game, and they’re buddies. I love that part of it. I love that after the game, the kids are hanging out. It’s just great to see that people can just leave it on the pitch and understand, ‘Hey, nothing’s personal,’ and we move on. The same thing with the coaches.”