By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Maria Carrillo girls soccer team had overcome plenty of questionable calls, minor injuries and mental lulls over the past three months. But against Montgomery in the North Coast Section Division 1 championship game, the Pumas faced a hurdle they had not experienced all season: a deficit.
When the Vikings’ Katie Woodrum scored a disputed goal in the 21st minute of Saturday’s game at Santa Rosa High, Carrillo trailed for the first time in 2012.
The Pumas responded exactly as coach Debra LaPrath assumed they would, with patience, resolve and attacking offense.
“For a split-second, we got down,” Maria Carrillo forward Victoria Kovatch said. “But we just knew we wanted it. We wanted it. Like, we would not let it stop us.”
Carrillo proceeded to wrap up a 3-1 victory over its North Bay League rival, capping a 20-0 season, winning its second straight
NCS title and, pending a vote that will be announced Tuesday, most likely ending the season as the top-ranked team in the nation among schools that play fall soccer.
When the Pumas first moved into the No. 1 spot two or three weeks ago, the previous top-ranked team sent LaPrath an email that said: “Welcome to No. 1. Welcome to the curse.”
“We didn’t want to talk about it,” LaPrath said after Saturday’s game. “We get to talk about it tonight.”
Carrillo is the first undefeated/untied soccer team in the Redwood Empire since 2004, when the Cardinal Newman boys and Montgomery girls accomplished the feat.
It looked uncertain when Woodrum scored her goal for Montgomery. Super-freshman Taylor Ziemer bent her a pass in front of the net, and goalkeeper Jenna Tiewater dropped the ball after collecting it, allowing Woodrum to finish. The question was whether she knocked it out of Tiewater’s hands.
The nearest linesman drew his flag to signal stoppage of play before Woodrum put the ball in the net and, LaPrath said, the center referee blew his whistle.
The referee later told LaPrath that the linesman changed his mind after his initial interpretation.
It was a shocking turn of events after the Pumas had dominated play up to that point, launching five corner kicks to none from Montgomery, and sending two balls off the crossbar in the span of a minute.
It didn’t take Maria Carrillo long to equalize, though. In the 33rd minute, player-of-the-year candidate Katie Mohr centered the ball from the right side, Montgomery goalkeeper Shyniah Austin unsuccessfully came out to get it and the Pumas’ Brooke Dunbar tapped the ball into an empty net.
The second half clearly belonged to Carrillo. Forward Madison (Speedy) Gonzalez stuck the ball past Austin off a long pass from Madison Minton in the 51st minute. And Kovatch added a header into the net on Mohr’s corner kick in the 67th minute.
With a number of starters returning from the 2011 championship team, the Pumas wore targets on their jerseys all year.
Certainly, theirs was an ultra-talented team. Of the seniors, Mohr is on her way to join best friend and former teammate Sara Tosti at Arizona State, star defender Ali Schaffer will play at USF, Kovatch is headed to Azusa Pacific, Kristen Sampietro will suit up for UCSD and Minton is staying local at Sonoma State.
But LaPrath is adamant that the Pumas’ undefeated run wasn’t just about talent. She talks about senior leadership, and about how closely her team bonded across age groups.
LaPrath does a lot of team-building exercises — beach training, weekly dinners, writing assignments.
“But I’ve done that every year,” the coach said. “And sometimes teams go with it, and sometimes they don’t. And this team bought into every single thing that we asked of them. Everything.”
On the other sideline, Montgomery coach Pat McDonald had no regrets about the game, or about the Vikings’ 17-7-1 season. This was Monty’s 11th trip to the section title game in 12 years, and McDonald has rarely enjoyed a group more.
“The team chemistry is the best I’ve ever had, and we got here because of the team chemistry,” he said. “Not the most talented team I had, by far.”
The Vikings finally ran up against a team with more talent, and just as much chemistry. In fact, they ran into the best team in America this autumn.