Those results could lead onlookers to say Sparks struggled at the end of its season, that it was not peaking at the right time. However, that's not what Railroaders coach Frank Avilla would say, and considering his SHS is still alive in postseason play, his comments may have merit.
"The end of our season was dictated by our strength of schedule," Avilla said. "We knew going in, those teams would give us hard games. So we weren't surprised when those matches were tough ... I'd be lying to you if I said I'd thought we'd lose two of those, because as the coach, I don't go in thinking we'll lose.
"What I'm clinging to and what I truly believe is we had our chances, even in those matches we lost. We just have to convert those opportunities. This time of year, you have to expect tough matches because you face tough teams."
Sparks finished its regular season with a 3-3 tie in its league finale at traditionally tough South Tahoe and then lost 2-0 in a non-league affair at Div. I power Spanish Springs. Sparks bounced back to beat South Tahoe 3-2 in a regional semifinal, clinching a state tournament berth, before falling 3-1 to rival Truckee in the last Saturday's regional final
Next up for Sparks (17-3-1) is a DI-A state semifinal against Southeast Career Technical Academy (SECTA) Friday at Dayton High School. Start time is 2 p.m. Sparks and the Las Vegas school are not complete strangers. The two teams met last fall in Las Vegas where SECTA captured a 3-2 overtime triumph in the state final.
"I know Sparks has a strong team," SECTA coach Josh Jones said. "They battled back add forth with Truckee. Any team can step up and beat anybody in soccer. I expect it to be a tough close match like it was last year. We've only played them that one time, but I know they're well coached, disciplined and come ready to play."
While Sparks fell into a mini tailspin at the end of the year, SECTA (18-5-3) is cruising along, having won its last seven outings. The Roadrunners finished second in the DI-A South Region's Sunrise League, falling twice to regular season league champion Desert Pines. SECTA proceeded to knock off Sunrise Mountain -- which had beaten Desert Pines in an earlier semifinal -- in last Saturday's regional championship, in overtime, 3-2 at Heritage Park.
"I think we are playing our best soccer right now," Jones said. "We've had a lot of issues all season. We lost our No. 1 striker (Salvador Garcia) about six weeks ago with a dislocated kneecap. He had 30 goals last year. That was a major blow. We don't have one standout player. We're more of a team.
"We've just been through all kinds of adversity. We lost our home soccer field. It's really old and has a lot of sinkholes on it. So, we played our last six home games on neutral-site fields. It's been one issue after another, but I think it's brought us together as a team."
Sparks has scored a myriad of goals throughout its fall campaign, but against Truckee, South Tahoe and Spanish Springs, scores were much harder to come by. The Railroaders did not have as many opportunities to score against those good opponents, but they still had a few quality looks that didn't end up in goals and Avilla said that's been his club's Achilles Heel when its struggled.
"Obviously, we're working on finishing this week," the veteran SHS coach said. "We're not changing much up. There are drills we can do to improve our finishing, but the main thing is not panicking and being confident in our abilities so we can achieve what we've set out to do. We're working on shooting at angles, and one-on-ones with somebody challenging.
"We have to understand our own greatness. I like playing those tough teams at the end of the year. Those have helped us evolve into a better team. We're up to the challenge."
Jones said his squad has dealt with the same finishing struggles at times throughout the season.
"One of our biggest weaknesses all year long has been finding the back of the net. We scored a ton of goals last year, but this year we've been in a ton of close games because we couldn't finish. We're starting to find the back of net more, but overall, our top strength is possession and being able to control the ball."
Given both team's inopportune scoring misses against quality opponents and a penchant for playing closes contests in the postseason, another tight state tournament tilt is probably in the works. Fans of both schools will find out Friday.