ALIVE AND KICKING Tacoma Stars one step from playoffs

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The Tacoma Stars are beginning to make these late-season playoff runs a new part of Puget Sound soccer tradition. For the third year in a row, the Stars’ playoff fortunes will come down to the final week of the Major Arena Soccer League’s regular season. After defeating the Ontario Fury by a score of 8-6 on Friday, Feb. 23, the boys from Tacoma find themselves holding those fortunes in their own hands this time around.

After needing a regular-season ending Ontario loss to keep their playoff hopes alive last season, the Stars and their fans went into their final game rather deflated after the Fury sealed their own playoff berth with a victory the night before. This season the situation is similar, but not the same.

Both teams are now 10-11 on the season, with one match remaining on their respective schedules. Tacoma knocked off the Fury in three of their four matches this season, so the Stars own the first and foremost tie-breaker in case of a season-ending tie. Ontario will host MASL Pacific Division champion San Diego Sockers (17-3) on Thursday, March 28, at the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario at 7:05 p.m. The game can be streamed live on the MASLtv Youtube channel.

Should the Fury pull off an upset of the Sockers (which they have already accomplished this season), the following night’s match at the Accesso ShoWare Center in Kent will be for all the marbles. It will be Fan Appreciation Night as the Tacoma Stars host the dangerous Kansas City Comets at 7 p.m. Of course, if the Fury loses to the Sockers, they will be eliminated and the Stars will secure a postseason berth for the second time in their three full seasons in the MASL.

When the dust eventually settles on the regular season, the team that emerges as the second seed from the Pacific Division will have a monumental task ahead of them, should they hope to advance to the MASL Western Conference finals. Awaiting either the Stars or the Fury is the 14-time indoor champion San Diego Sockers.

For the record, the last time the Tacoma Stars defeated the San Diego Sockers in a playoff series was in 1987. It was also the first time the Sockers had lost a playoff series. If the chips fall the right way, perhaps it’s time for the Stars to start yet another new tradition if they can just get a ticket to the playoffs.

To get to this point, the Stars had to bounce back from a pretty healthy drubbing at the hands of Ontario on Thursday, Feb. 15, in California. The Fury hit the gas pedal in the second half and handed Tacoma a 9-4 defeat. Tacoma would answer the bell the following night with a 5-3 victory at Turlock to keep themselves within striking distance of the Fury.

The final match between Ontario and the Stars was dubbed a “must win”for Tacoma, and the folks at the front office weren’t kidding around. A victory would give Tacoma a leg up on the Fury, while a loss at home would shelve Tacoma’s playoff hopes for the season. With both teams needing the victory, one of the best, young rivalries in the Major Arena Soccer League was dialed up to 11 for this match.

Tacoma came out firing after the opening whistle, putting the Fury on their heels, and also on notice that this game was going to be a slugfest. If Ontario was going to entertain thoughts of sewing up a playoff berth on the Stars’ home turf, they were going to have to match Tacoma’s intensity. After several near misses in the early going, former Wilson High School standout Joey Gjertsen found the back of the net on a feed from Cory Keitz. Tacoma led 1-0 with just over nine minutes remaining in the opening stanza.

Ontario would buckle down for the remainder of the first period, keeping Tacoma to just one goal, despite several opportunities for the Stars.

After the start of the second quarter, it would only take two minutes for Tacoma to add another goal. Since joining the Stars 11 games ago, veteran indoor stud Nick Perera has been a scoring machine for Tacoma. He made it 2-0 for Tacoma off an assist from Gjertsen. Just under three minutes later, Perera added another goal off an assist from Philip Lund to make it 3-0 for Tacoma with 10 minutes left in the second quarter.

In his 11 games with Tacoma, Perera has scored a whopping 19 goals, while dishing out eight assists for a total of 27 points. Adding in his early-season stint with the Syracuse Silver Knights, Perera has racked up 33 points on the season.

Ontario would get on the scoreboard off a blast by Adrian Perez to make the score 3-1 with eight minutes left in the first half. Tacoma would answer three minutes later when former Stadium High School ace Jamael Cox got an assist from Keitz for his first goal of the night. The teams entered halftime with Tacoma holding a 4-1 advantage.

The Fury would strike just 40 seconds into the third quarter off a solo shot from Juan Gonzalez to tighten the score at 4-2 Tacoma. Just over two minutes later, Cox would strike again off a feed from Robert Palmer to make it 5-2 Tacoma with about 12 minutes remaining in the third quarter.

It would take eight minutes before either team found paydirt again, and this time it was Keitz getting another point off of a goal of his own. With another assist from Gjertsen, Tacoma would take their 6-2 lead to the end of the third quarter.

Ouday Belhadj would get another one back for Ontario just over a minute into the fourth quarter to keep the Fury within striking distance, trailing 6-3. Tacoma’s Raphael Cox would get into the scoring mix three minutes later off a feed from Perera to make it 7-3 Tacoma with just under 11 minutes remaining in the match.

Jamael Cox would complete the journey toward his first hat trick of the season off an assist by goalkeeper Danny Waltman to make the score 8-3 Tacoma with a little more than five minutes left in the game. Despite giving up two goals after pulling their goalkeeper for a sixth attacker, Ontario would catch fire in the waning moments and added three goals to make it interesting. However, there wasn’t going to be enough time left for Ontario’s comeback, and the Stars celebrated like a team that had been hit with a new lease on life.

Over their three years facing each other, Tacoma and Ontario have had some very physical matches together, resulting in quite a few penalties. Even though this match was a high-energy affair, both teams kept their cool to the tune of just two penalties being called over the 60 minutes of play.

The hat trick by Jamael Cox earned him a spot on the MASL Team of the Week. Five Stars have now earned the weekly honor this season with Alex Megson, Alain Matingou, Waltman and Perera garnering kudos from the league.

Tacoma finishes out the regular season on Friday, March 2, at the Accesso ShoWare Center against the Kansas City Comets. First kick for Fan Appreciation Night is set for 7:35 p.m. Tickets are available at www.tacomastars.com. Should Tacoma secure a berth into the MASL playoffs, they will be hosting the San Diego Sockers on Thursday, March 8.

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