By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
On the brink of winning its second consecutive North Coast Section Division 1 playoffs title, the Maria Carrillo girls’ soccer team has only one final hurdle to clear to complete the feat and finish with an unblemished season.
The host Pumas (19-0) defeated Analy, 3-0, on Wednesday evening in an NCS semifinal and will face Montgomery on Saturday night at Santa Rosa High for the title, in a rematch of last year’s final. Maria Carrillo, which won the North Bay League, beat the Vikings twice during the regular season.
“We are ready for the final. We continue to work hard and stay focused,” Maria Carrillo coach Debra LaPrath said. “This was our goal at the start of the season — to win back-to-back NCS championships.”
After holding the Pumas scoreless in the first half with tough-minded defense and select counter-attacks, the Tigers (14-5-1) were eventually worn down in the second half and did not have the personnel to match up with Maria Carrillo’s firepower.
“We are pretty young so (NCS) was a good experience,” Tigers coach Joseph Heil said. “We had a tremendous season.”
As happened in the teams’ nonleague meeting, a 5-1 Pumas win, Maria Carrillo eventually shredded the Tigers’ defense. In Wednesday’s game, the Pumas scored three goals in a 23-minute span in the second half to put the game away.
“Give credit to Maria Carrillo. They are big, fast, strong and skilled,” Heil said. “It was a deserved win by them and the better team won tonight.”
The Pumas controlled the ball throughout the game but didn’t have many scoring opportunities in the first half.
“I just don’t think we created enough chances in the first half,” LaPrath said. “We just didn’t settle down. We were impatient.”
The second half was a different story as the Pumas came at Analy freshman back-up goalie Bailey Cahill with a barrage of shots.
Cahill was filling in for first-string goalie Ali Miller, who was injured in the Tigers’ quarterfinal win over Casa Grande.
“I thought (Bailey) played really well as a back-up coming in as a freshman under pressure,” LaPrath said. “In the second half we started moving the ball and passing. We started controlling the play and creating chances.”
The breakthrough goal for Maria Carrillo came after a controversial play in the 49th minute. Cahill went for the ball served into the goalie box and collided with a Pumas player while securing the ball. It was not clear if the collision happened before Cahill had grasp of the ball or after. In any case, the ball bounded out of Cahill’s hands to a waiting Miranda Gonzalez, who slide-hooked in a 6-yard goal for a 1-0 Maria Carrillo lead.
“The first goal was always going to be big in this game. We had to take a few more chances after they got their goal,” Heil said. “I don’t buy their first goal, to be honest. My goalie had the ball and was bumped by one of their players. The referee should have disallowed the goal but he made the call and you have to live with it.”
Armed with a 1-0 lead, the Pumas opened up the field and pressed forward with an attack that netted a second goal in the 62nd minute on a 4-yard blast by Katie Mohr. Teammate Madison Gonzalez earned the assist with the initial shot from 8-yards out that ricocheted off Cahill to Mohr.
One minute later it was 3-0 as Miranda Gonzalez struck again for a goal off a 7-yard header that went into the net like a laser, giving Cahill no chance. Mohr tallied an assist on a near perfect entry ball on the corner kick to Gonzalez.
“I remember hitting the ball perfectly. I felt it and I knew it was going to go in,” Miranda Gonzalez said. “I feel like we can do this, win it again for back-to-back championships.”
The Pumas held a decisive 15-3 advantage in shots-on-goal. Maria Carrillo goalies Jenna Tiewater and Claire Howard were not called upon to make a single difficult save the entire game.
As for the championship game, the Vikings better buckle their seat belts on Saturday as the high-octane Pumas are looking to add more hardware to the Maria Carrillo trophy case.
Heil said he is convinced the Pumas will seal the deal on Saturday.
“Carrillo is a class above and everyone else is fighting for second place,” Heil said. “I don’t see anyone beating them at this point.”