Tigers top Harding Academy for Class 3A crown
When Green Forest High School graduate Eric Perez returned to his alma mater to coach soccer, his mind was already imagining the possibilities.
Perez, who played for the Tigers’ 2014 Class 4A state championship team, wondered how it would feel to coach Green Forest to a second state title.
Now he knows exactly how that feels, even if it’s a little difficult to put into words.
Perez’s Tigers put the finishing touches on a dominant season Saturday, defeating Harding Academy 2-0 in the Class 3A state tournament final at the Benton Sports Complex.
“It’s hard to explain how it feels,” Perez said Monday. “That was something, when I came in, I thought: ‘What if that happens?’ And it happened. It’s still kind of hard to process it.”
Perez said he believed from the beginning that Green Forest had the potential to win a state title. The Tigers lost in the 2019 championship game, then saw their 2020 season wiped out because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The beginning of the season, I told all the players, ‘my goal here is to come and help you guys win a state championship,’ ” Perez said.
Saturday’s victory was the 22nd straight for the undefeated Tigers after a season-opening tie against Class 5A Mountain Home. Green Forest outscored its opponents 134-8 and recorded 17 shutouts — including four in a row in the state tournament.
Green Forest senior Emerson Ortiz was the top scorer in the state, putting the ball in the net 41 times. Naturally, keeping the ball away from Ortiz was a point of emphasis for Harding Academy, but the Tigers were far from a one-man show.
Senior Blut Htoo gave Green Forest the lead for good when he scored from close range with 13:43 remaining in the first half, and classmate Blu Doh Soh’s goal with 4:58 left in the game gave the Tigers some breathing room.
“That first goal was big,” Perez said. “Harding Academy had a really, really good defense. We hadn’t played anyone like that. Blut Htoo doesn’t do much scoring, and that was awesome. That got everybody else going.”
Harding Academy had a couple of chances to tie the score in the second half, but a free kick sailed over the goal at the 28:39 mark and Green Forest goalkeeper Fredy Juarez made a nice save on a header a little over four minutes later.
Senior Allan Deleon was named the game’s most valuable player.
Perez, who scored two goals as a senior in the 2014 title game, said coaching in the big game was tougher than being on the field.
“I think coaching was a little bit more stressful, because I couldn’t go out and play,” he said.
The Tigers will lose some key players from their state championship squad but Perez already has a goal in mind for next season.
“We’re going to try to get the repeat,” he said. “We’ll have a good chance. We’ll have a lot of kids coming back.”