Lopez wasted no time Saturday either making a difference as he returned to the talented Tiger lineup just in time for a showdown with rival Penn.
Lopez made his senior season debut in fine fashion with a pair of goals and an assist as the Class 2-A No. 3 Tigers defeated the Class 2-A No. 6 Kingsmen 3-1 at WCHS.
Lopez, who boasts tremendous quickness and lightning fast feet, was suspended for the first four games of the season.
“Diego is vital to us with his ball handling,” said acting Warsaw coach Frank Courtois. When everyone is watching you as they are with Diego, there are openings for others. That makes it hard to defend us.
“This was a big game and we expected a close game like it was. Everytime we play Penn they always bring their A game. They have a quality program.
“I think the heat played a major role today. It was hot out there and the guys were dragging. But they stuck together, stuck to the game plan and pulled it out.”
Courtois, normally the JV coach, is guiding the team as head coach Scott Bauer serves an eight-game suspension.
Warsaw, which won 1-0 at Penn last year, wasted no time Saturday in taking the game at the Kingsmen. The hosts got off their first shot just 40 seconds into the non-conference tussle.
The Tigers led 1-0 at intermission after Lopez scored on a penalty kick with 6:38 to play in the opening half. Penn had a great chance to knot the game with just under a minute to play in the first half, but misfired high and over the goal on a great scoring chance.
The Kingsmen, who graduated nine starters from a 15-4-3 team that won the NIC and sectional championships in 2011, missed another golden opportunity to tie the contest eight minutes into the second half. Edson Zamora’s attempt on a breakaway after a long run went just wide as teammate Darnell Oliver crashed into the corner of the net trying to reach the ball.
Warsaw made it 2-0 as sophomore Ernesto Cuellar settled a cross from Lopez and fired a fine pinpoint shot into goal with 26:23 to play. The Kingsmen made it 2-1 with 12:04 left as Zamora scored on a penalty kick after colliding with Warsaw keeper Michael Yantz. The Tigers wrapped up the 3-1 win as senior Nathan Kolbe had a beautiful set-up to assist Lopez for the final goal.
Warsaw, which has outscored its foes 20-1 in a 5-0 start to the season, was at full strength Saturday. Not only was Lopez back, but junior Gustavo Rodriguez returned from an injury.
The Tigers, who started five seniors Saturday, return a strong group from last year’s team that advanced all the way to the semistate title game for the second straight year. Warsaw, which finished 18-4-1 in 2011, beat Penn 1-0 in the regional final a year ago before eventually losing to Crown Point 1-0 (5-3 in penalty kicks) in the Warsaw Semistate championship contest.
Second-year Kingsmen coach Ryan Leniski, who had three seniors in his starting lineup, saw a lot to like Saturday.
“I think we walk away from here today knowing that we figured some things out and accomplished some things,” said Leniski, his team now 2-3. “I think our guys stepped forward as a group today and should feel a little less of a sting from this loss. We’re only five games into our season. It’s all about being ready for October (the postseason).
“I don’t think the final score tells the whole tale. There were moments that we dominated possession. That ball on the breakaway needs to go in the back of the net for us. I thought we dealt with their offense fairly well and with No. 9 (Lopez) pretty well. He’s a good player. I didn’t expect him back today. I heard that he was out for eight games.
“Warsaw is a good team. There’s no doubt about that. They are going to get their chances. But I think we have weapons too. We just have to execute what we want to do. When we do that, we can play with anyone.”
Warsaw outshot Penn 15-6 and had a 6-1 edge in corner kicks. Senior keeper Yantz had four saves for the Tigers. Senior goalie Andrew Costello had seven saves for Penn.
The two teams could meet again come October in the Mishawaka Regional again.
Senior Grant Allbritten left the game in the second half Saturday for the Tigers, but appeared to be okay. Allbritten received a cut on his left knee when he was cleated and left before the game was over to likely have stitches in the knee.
Warsaw won the JV game by a 4-2 final Saturday.
Warsaw, which opened Northern Lakes Conference play Thursday with a 2-0 win at Plymouth, hosts league foe Concord Wednesday. The JV game is at 5 p.m. with the varsity scheduled for 6:45 p.m. Penn hosts Mishawaka Marian Wednesday at 7 p.m.