Soccer: Rancho girls prevail over Sonoma Academy

Sonoma Academy's Tara McCulloch, right, and Rancho Cotate's Mariah Meuse battle for the ball. Photo by Christa Jeremiason, Press Democrat

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

ROHNERT PARK — Playing unselfish, inspired soccer, Rancho Cotate’s girls appear poised to end a four-year playoff drought, controlling Sonoma Academy for a 3-1 win Wednesday.

After missing a dozen scoring chances in the first half, the Cougars found the back of the Coyotes’ net for two goals in just over three minutes to open the second period.

One of Sonoma Academy’s few shots led to a penalty kick and score, but Rancho Cotate answered with another goal, set up by an attacking defense and sure passing.

“This was our best game. Our passing was together and everybody stayed with it,” said Careena Capra Martin, who scored a goal and helped lead the Cougars’ push from the back line.

Rancho Cotate improved to 5-1 — the Cougars won nine last season — and could be a tough match for the North Bay League’s top teams. The Cougars last made the North Coast Section playoffs in 2006.

“We’re trying to get up to the next level,” said Rancho Cotate coach Jeff Smith.

The first loss on the season for Sonoma Academy, now 3-1, showed the Coyotes are still plugging holes after losing all but three starters from a year ago. The Santa Rosa school took yet another North Coast League II South crown and won its third consecutive small school NCS girls’ title.

“We’re quite a bit younger. We’re really working on playing as a team,” said Sonoma Academy coach Shannon Percell. “We knew we weren’t going to have a ton of offense. We battled and worked hard and defended like we could.”

Rancho Cotate kept the ball on its opponents’ side of the field for long stretches with crisp exchanges, sideline runs, and well served crossing passes. With both Capra Martin and Mariah Meuse often controlling loose balls and pushing the pace, the Cougars repeatedly were open for shots that Sonoma Academy goalie Julia Wilmers turned aside when defensive anchor Grace Harryman wasn’t clearing entry passes.

Twice in the first half, shots struck the Sonoma Academy goal and caromed out — Capra Martin hit the crossbar and Holly Cramer angled a deep shot off the left goal post.

“It showed we worked hard,” Meuse said. “We had a lot of chances. We just didn’t finish.”

Those fortunes would soon change. Taking a pass following the second-half kickoff, Meuse dribbled up the middle through traffic and pushed a pass left to Natalie Bunch who booted in the game’s first goal.

Some two minutes later, Capra Martin sent a corner kick into the box where it was headed down. The ball rolled left and Capra Martin beat a defender to blast in a score from 15 yards out — just under the crossbar this time.

As strong as Rancho Cotate was on offense, the Cougars defense bottled up Sonoma Academy’s few offensive pushes with Tayler Dodds in the middle of most stops. Key to that success was keeping prolific goal scorer Kate Bayes in check, often with two and three players marking and shadowing her.

When she did break free, Bayes managed a few shots. The best was a blast from near the left sideline in the second half that Rancho Cotate goalkeeper Jenna Wandrey punched away.

A foul on the play gave the Coyotes a penalty kick and Bayes sent it in to narrow the score.

Erasing any comeback hopes, Rancho Cotate kept the pressure on and Kathryn Kane ended the scoring with a left footed strike from 20 yards out off the second assist on the night from Meuse.

“We’re just getting more used to each other,” Meuse said. “We all feel real confident.”