At the conclusion of the 2017 Cerritos College men's soccer season, head coach Benny Artiaga was looking to add more spark and offense to his team after watching the season end in a penalty kick loss at the CCCAA State Semifinals. Enter midfielders Erick Gallinar and Oscar Penate, both bouncebacks from NCAA Division I programs. Gallinar, who played at UC Irvine, and Penate, who played at Cal State Fullerton, were reuniting after growing up playing soccer together.
The best friends, who helped lead the Falcons to the CCCAA State Championship and earn the college's first United Soccer Coaches National Championship, will continue their journey together at UC Riverside.
"UC Riverside, with these two players, along with (former Falcon) Jose Ponce, will be taking their program to that next level, and I can't wait to go see them play," said Artiaga. "They will be a lot of fun to watch in the next couple years."
Gallinar, who scored three times on the year and led the team with 19 assists, was a 1st Team All-American selection, while Penate was a 1st Team All-South Coast Conference South Division selection along with Gallinar. The 19 helpers by Gallinar also tied him for second in the state. Two of those assists came in the state semifinal game, while he had five in the postseason. Penate (pictured, left) contributed three goals and five assists on the season, which included a goal and two assists against East Los Angeles College in one of the team's wins.
The duo had always talked about continuing to play together prior to joining the Falcons for the 2018 season. Penate stated that the two have developed a chemistry on the field and when UC Riverside came calling for both, they each felt it would be natural for them to both sign at the same time with the same school.
"The reason why I committed to UCR was because it felt more like home," stated Gallinar. "I felt the energy the moment I had my campus visit. In fact, I have plenty of friends attending school and some that I'll play with again. It was also my best financial offer I had. I simply liked UCR."
Penate was quick to agree, stating, "I chose UC Riverside over all the other schools because I felt like I can start a new journey there and I feel like it's a place where I can grow as a soccer player and as a student-athlete. They gave me a very good offer and I have the mentality of winning championships wherever I go so that's the reason I chose UCR."
What seemed to impress UC Riverside was how the duo were both able to control the tempo of a game with their speed and maneuverability. Gallinar impressed Artiaga so much that he said, "Erick might be the most talented soccer player I've ever coached. He was that good and he proved it by taking his game to another level in the playoffs. It was like as if a man was playing with boys at times." His accolades continue when referring to Penate. "I'm so proud of Oscar," continued Artiaga. "The single most important moment of the season was when Oscar was implemented into the starting lineup (in the 10th game of the season). From that point forward, our offense took on another look. He is one of the most technically gifted players I've had the privilege of coaching."
Prior to Penate entering the starting lineup, the Falcons had only scored one goal in six of those first nine games. Helping to ignite the offense by allowing Cerritos to control possession of the ball longer, the Falcons scored 41 goals over the next 10 games. They also outscored their opponents, 12-3 on their road to the state and national championship.
"What I will remember about this 2018 championship team is our friendship," said Gallinar. "The bond that we built outside and inside of the field was unbelievable. It was like family. We were so close to another. A team is not a single person. We win as a team, not as an individual. In fact, I believe we won the championship game because of our relationship with one another. It's all about teamwork."
That team bond also resonated with Penate, as he said, "The most important thing I will remember about playing with this championship team is that we all built a special bond with each other and it wasn't only on the field. It was also outside the field which made this group strong because we all had each other's backs and the effort and sacrifice was always there from every single player, which made us all better. It was just something special for me."
The two will be joining a Highlanders (8-10-2) team that won their first Big West Conference Tournament Championship in school history in 2018. Qualifying for their first NCAA Tournament, UC Riverside came up short in a 1-0 decision against the University of the Pacific in their First Round match.
"I knew that transferring from a D1 to a community college was going to be a hard decision for me," said Penate. "But I never took it as a negative decision because I knew coming to play a year at Cerritos would carry me back to the top and to a better place! This was a bounce back to my career as a soccer player and as a student. I had lost hope and motivation, but I've never felt stronger and more motivated than what I am now."
Added Gallinar, "UCR wanted us to commit as a package. We think UCR will be the best place for us."