The clock had ticked to about the 75th minute of the 3A state semifinal soccer match between Bliss and Filer, but neither team had found a breakthrough.
That was, until Bears striker Steven Rubio got an inch of space.
Played through, one-on-one with the goalkeeper as a defender draped himself on Rubio’s back, the senior took a touch to his left, baited the keeper out of his goal and, with his left foot, dinked the ball over him to send Bliss to state championship game.
The goal was not only a vital one for Bliss, but one that epitomized Rubio and his season. A year ago, it was a goal he might not have even scored.
“That Filer game made me realize that’s what I’d been working for,” Rubio said. “My lefty is what I’d been working at for the whole summer. Hard work pays off. That’s exactly what happened.”
The naturally right-footed Rubio’s improvement in all facets of the game was a testament to the extra work he put in before his final season, in which he was undoubtedly Bliss’ most important player.
With his contributions for his team and the individual brilliance with which he played, Rubio is the Times-News boys soccer player of the year.
“I knew who I was gonna be for the team,” Rubio said. “I knew I was gonna be important. Throughout the summer, I just kept preparing myself to be a different player.”
The numbers Rubio put up speak volumes about just how vital he was to the Bears.
Rubio notched 39 goals in 21 games. The entire Bliss squad scored 62 all season, giving Rubio 63 percent of his team’s goals. Most of them were scored in spite of teams crafting their defensive plans around stopping Rubio. Most of the time, they simply couldn’t.
In his three years of playing for Bliss, he totaled 81 goals.
“He was a big part of our offense that kind of lifted us from being middle-of-the-field to getting to state and getting to the finals,” Bliss head coach Brent Bjornn said.
Rubio’s goals came in numerous ways—free kicks, penalties, from open play—he did it all. He was most dangerous, though, when Bliss played long passes on the counter.
Blessed with speed few opponents could match, Rubio would time his runs and find himself in behind the defense often, much like what he did for his strike against Filer. Once given space, all he had to do was apply all the things he’d worked so hard to improve upon.
“If you have speed, you can be taught anything,” Rubio said. “From there, you can become a good player. Speed is something that’s given to you. Other stuff, you just need to work on.”
Among Rubio’s goal tally were five goals in three games at the state tournament. He scored a hat trick in Bliss’ blowout victory over Timberlake in the quarterfinals, before his dramatic winner against Filer.
In the state title game against Sun Valley Community School, with the score knotted at zero in the 14th minute, Rubio stepped up to take a free kick from a long way out. Without hesitation, he went for goal, and placed it perfectly to give Bliss the lead.
That day, Rubio said he knew it was in from the moment it left his foot.
“Steven rose to the challenge of making the plays needed for this team to advance and do well,” Bjornn said.
Rubio, who said, if there’s a player he tries to emulate on the field, it would be Barcelona and Argentina star Lionel Messi, emerged as a captain and leader for Bliss as well, influencing those around him and bringing them to a higher level.
Whether that was on the practice field or when it counted in games, Rubio lifted the Bears to a level even he wasn’t entirely sure they’d reach, getting back to the state championship after losing several key pieces from the team that had reached the same spot in 2017.
The future is still unclear for Rubio, who said he has an offer to play soccer at Treasure Valley Community College, but hasn’t made a decision yet. He knows he wants to continue playing at the next level, and Bjornn thinks he deserves a chance to do so.
One thing is for certain, though. The Bears will look a lot different without Rubio leading the line next season.
“You don’t really replace those things, the way he did them,” Bjornn said.