FIELD HOCKEY: Mustangs advance to second straight CCS final after thrilling win over LG

The team celebrates after beating Los Gatos in overtime.

Talk about an instant classic. Faint of heart need not apply.

Two 30-minute halves, two seven-minute sudden death overtime periods and one round of best-of-five penalty strokes wasn’t enough to settle a thrilling Central Coast Section semifinals showdown between the Gilroy High and Los Gatos field hockey teams Tuesday night.

After more than two hours of highly competitive field hockey, the second-seeded Mustangs outlasted the No. 3 Wildcats – the three-time defending CCS champions – in a nail-biter in the truest sense after a second round of penalty strokes 1-0 (PS) to advance to the finals for the second straight season.

“(Los Gatos) was better than us in the game because of their constant pressure. We couldn’t pass, it was so tight,” GHS head coach Adam Gemar said. “But we rode the tide and survived. Then going to strokes, we never practice strokes. I was just like, ‘of course it’s coming down to the one thing we haven’t practiced.’ But it was their heart and determination that brought them through. It was all heart.”

This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Gilroy High field hockey team. If that’s the case, Gemar and the Mustangs are master craftsmen.

Three league games into the 2011 season, the Mustangs were 0-1-2 in the Mount Hamilton. A 1-0 victory over Los Gatos put the train on the right tracks and come regular season’s end, the Mustangs were 7-3-4 and the No. 2-seed into the postseason.

Naturally, the road to the finals and a section title had to go through the Wildcats, and the two elite squads’ paths did cross once more Tuesday night at Del Mar High School.

Neither team looked as though it would give an inch even down to the final penalty stroke for Los Gatos, which nicked the outside of the left post and ricocheted away.

Despite ample scoring chances and near misses, especially in a wide-open second half – opportunities that kept fans cheering for both on a emotionally bumpy seesaw – the two teams remained scoreless after the 60-minute regulation, and again stayed that way through two 7-versus-7, seven-minute, golden-goal-wins-it overtimes.

Los Gatos earned 17 short-corner tries in regulation and the two overtimes combined.

“Our defense was awesome,” Gemar said. “That’s the difference between this year and last.”

It seemed only fitting that the familiar sides, with an always-expanding history of close, tense games, needed the penalty stroke scenario to decide a winner. In a penalty stroke round, each team gets five shots. Teams alternate shots and a winner is decided by a best-of-five gauge. If teams are tied after the first round, it moves to a second following the same guidelines.

Each side missed a stroke in the first round of the shootout, sending the game into its second round tied 4-4. The Mustangs and Wildcats remained deadlocked at 6-6 before Marissa Mazzone came up with a save and Celeste Mendoza buried her shot to put GHS up 7-6.

“It’s for the team, not for me. You have to try your hardest. It’s for everyone,” Mendoza said, describing her mindset during the tense situation. “I looked the total opposite direction of where I was going (with the shot).”

Katrina Carter (2), Emma Leach (2), Mendoza (2), Alex Kachakji (1) registered the converted strokes for Gilroy. 

“It’s really nerve-racking. I just really didn’t want to let the ball go by me,” said Mazzone, whose lone save of the penalty strokes rounds was enough to hold off the Wildcats. “I was just thinking to myself, ‘I have to do this. We can totally win this if I can block as many shots as I can.'”

With a chance to win it in the first shoot out round, a Wildcats’ shot skimmed off of the right post, giving the Mustangs new life. Mendoza made her shot to send it into the second round. Los Gatos had a combined three shots go wide in the stroke sessions.

“It’s the definition of nerve-racking,” said Kachakji, who converted one of her two strokes. “I’ve been nervous before but nothing like that, ever. Like it was do or die and I felt like I would shrivel up and die if we didn’t do it.”

The victory is the first for the Mustangs over the Wildcats in the playoffs since an overtime/penalty strokes victory in the 2005 quarterfinals – a triumph eerily similar to Tuesday’s.  In each of the last three postseasons, Los Gatos eliminated Gilroy – in the semifinals twice and in the finals last year.

“It’s huge. It’s everything to us. There’s nothing else. It means the world,” said Kachakji, who was among a handful of Mustangs overcome with tears of joy and relief that they had finally pushed aside the once-steadfast roadblock.

No. 4-seed St. Francis upset the tournament’s No. 1-seed Mitty 2-1 in the second semifinal of the evening. The Monarchs had not lost a game all year.

“They are fast. They are skilled. they are well coached. Just like the other teams in the final four,” Gemar said of the Lancers. 

Gilroy defeated St. Francis twice during the regular season by a combined two goals.

The finals are slated for 11 a.m. Saturday at Del Mar High School in San Jose.

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