After scoring just two minutes into the game, the Christopher High girls soccer team might have taken its foot off the pedal in its CIF NorCal Regional Division IV semifinal playoff match against Kerman on Thursday.
The Lions went on to create two clean breakaway scoring chances—as good as it’s going to get in the beautiful game—but only scored on one of them to go into halftime deadlocked at 1-1. Not finishing both chances came back to haunt the Lions as top seed Christopher made the adjustments—both tactically and mentally—to eventually pull away for a 4-2 victory.
Having already gone where no CHS team has gone before—a NorCal semifinal—the top seed Cougars (13-5-1) now have a chance to burnish their legacy when they play host to No. 3 seed Pioneer (15-5-1) in the championship match Saturday at 5pm.
It’ll no doubt be one of the two best teams the Cougars will have played all season, the other being Notre Dame-Belmont on Dec. 18. Pioneer finished in third place in the Blossom Valley League’s Mount Hamilton Division, one of the toughest leagues for girls soccer in the CCS.
Their league champion, Leigh, is playing for the CIF NorCal Division II championship. Saturday’s title match is a nice harbinger because CHS will be joining the BVAL next season and its girls soccer team will no doubt be placed in the league’s top A-league Mount Hamilton Division along with powerhouse programs Leigh, Leland and Pioneer.
Against Kerman, Kaiya Stewart scored two goals, and Jenna Urrabazo and Kayla Puga had one goal each to power the Cougars to victory. Although it looked like CHS was going to have an easy time with the Lions, it turned out to be a dogfight until the very end, no matter what the score said.
The Cougars were out of sorts and had all they could handle in the first half.
“We weren’t winning 50-50s and weren’t passing through each other and playing with each other,” senior midfielder Taylor Mejia said. “(The lack of effort and focus) had to do with it. We came in tired and not prepared and we were letting them beat us.”
However, in typical CHS fashion, it centered itself and did the necessary things to come out on top yet again.
“We knew we were tired, but we had to give it our all,” Mejia said. “This was a playoff game for state and no one at Christopher has done this so we have to go out and do it.”
CHS started off fast as Rainelynn Antipuesto and Puga connected on a spectacular goal just two minutes into the match. Antipuesto dribbled 30 yards down the left sideline before making a terrific cross to the far right post, where Puga nailed a one-timer for a 1-0 lead.
However, it didn’t take long for Kerman to find some openings in the CHS defense and it seized on that and had a couple of golden scoring chances before halftime. Oetinger was proud of the way the team rebounded after a tough opening half.
“I feel emotionally drained as the game was not going the way we wanted to go at all in the first half,” he said. “They were moving a lot of players through the middle so our girls were getting confused on who to mark and when and where. So it was more of a structural thing for us that we got clarified at halftime. Once we got that cleaned up and clarified, obviously the tide turned.”
Did it ever. Carlie Silva moved from outside back to the wing position and Skyler Turiello and Sophie Gonzalez started the second half on the backline. The Cougars started the second half in the exact way they did in the first—by attacking the Kerman goal.
Only this time, there was no letup in the second half. In the 42nd minute, Silva got things started with a beautiful ball to a streaking Stewart down the middle of the field to the penalty area, but the Kerman goalkeeper came off her line to make a nice play on the ball.
A couple of minutes later, Stewart had another great scoring chance and saw her shot go barely wide left. But the junior striker wasn’t going to be denied. In the 53rd minute, Ella Oetinger lofted a perfect pass inside the 18-yard box, where Stewart one-touched it amid a defender draped all over her.
Stewart then flicked the ball into the net as she was falling down, a supreme effort even by her high standards. In the 61st minute, Stewart showed she’s just as good at giving as she is receiving, as she made a tough run along the right sideline before hitting Urrabazo in the middle as the senior was headed toward the Kerman goal.
Urrabazo did the rest, gaining separation from a defender before slotting a shot to the lower left corner. Just two minutes later, Urrabazo was inside midfield when she connected with Stewart on the right flank. Stewart then juked a defender before hitting an absolute laser, a right to left bender that even had her teammates amazed.
“Kaiya, I’m watching her and she’s so entertaining to watch,” Mejia said. “I don’t know how she takes on three girls and then scores. Kaiya and Jenna play so well off each other, and they’re both going to be amazing soccer players in college.”
Even though he’s seen their dynamic act before, Oetinger was floored with Stewart and Urrabazo’s performance.
“I’ll tell you what, Kaiya and Jenna put on a show towards the end of the game,” he said. “Those are elite players. There’s some stuff there that’s really next level and is super fun to watch.”
Tied at halftime, CHS scored three goals in a 10-minute span that effectively sealed the outcome. Give Kerman credit: it scored again in the 67th minute and fought to the very end, the latest physically tough match for a CHS team that now only has one more game left in this historic season.
Win or lose, this will be the final time Mejia and some of her fellow seniors ever play organized competitive soccer again. Whatever happens, they will have gone as far as they could have possibly gone in a season for the ages.
“It’s just awesome,” Mejia said. “We keep winning every game and we’re meant to be here.”
The team has bonded all season by getting together for dinner the night before games. In recent weeks, they’ve incorporated karaoke into the mix and the players were imploring the coaches to get on the mic. Oetinger promised the players if they won CCS, he would do it.
Of course, the Cougars repeated as section champions last Saturday and it was Oetinger’s turn to step up during the team dinner/karaoke event Wednesday evening. Oetinger and assistant coach Darlene DelCarmen did a duet over the song, “Summer Lovin” from Grease.
“I told the girls if we win CCS, I’ll do karaoke for you,” Oetinger said. “So it was payback time. It’s also a way to keep things light and have a good time because the girls are so drained emotionally and mentally.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]