For the third time in the past five seasons (and the fifth time in the program’s 15-year history) the AV Boys Varsity Soccer team reached the semi-final stage of the Northern California Coast play-offs. Hopes were high that this could be the year for them to get to the Championship Game itself. As the #3 seed, they would start as slight underdogs against perennial powerhouse and #2 seed, Branson High School of Ross (Marin County), but with the game being played at The Fairgrounds in Boonville last Wednesday (Nov 11th), and with the wonderful hometown support urging them on, the players knew that if they played to their full potential a place in the school’s first ever final was certainly within the team’s grasp.
With the pre-game introductions finished, the national anthem over, and the rather fussy referee satisfied that those in the crowd who were behind the fence but not in the stands were not going to be an issue, the game finally got underway. It started very positively for AV. They played some good soccer in the opening exchanges and in the tenth minute Sergio Gutierrez burst through on goal past two defenders, clearly startled by his pace, and shot low past the ”keeper, only to see the ball bounce out off the inside of the far post and away to safety. It was a warning for the Bulls that they clearly did not heed as just five minutes later a cross by Omar Ferryera was met by Gutierrez and before any defenders could react he slipped the ball past the exposed Ækeeper. The vast majority of the large crowd of around 150 people erupted with joy. 1-0 to AV.
The experienced and physically strong Branson team responded well and they gradually took a grip on the tempo of the game, unsettling the Panther’s rhythm and frequently beating them to the ball all over the pitch. The relatively small AV team was always going to struggle against the height of the Bulls from any attacks in the air and sure enough in the 25th minute a long high cross was met by a Bulls forward and headed goal-ward. Christian Mendoza in the Panther goal could only parry it on to the crossbar and the rebound was met by another Bull who headed it into the goal from two yards out. It was 1-1 and at the half it was anybody’s game.
The first 15 minutes of the second half are always emphasized by Coaches Smith and Sparks as being a crucial period of the game, and one in which every loose ball and tackle has to be strongly competed for and possession maintained as much as possible. However, on this occasion the sheer overall ability and strength of the Bulls put the Panthers under pressure right from the kick-off. With striker Elio Gonzales recovering from an illness and unable to continue after the break, AV had to go to a more defensive line-up thus inviting the Bulls to attack; and attack they did. Following defensive mishaps and confusion, the Bulls scored two goals in a crucial five-minute spell early in the half and it was 1-3 to Branson, who seemed to be in control and heading for the Final. However, regular Panther supporters will be aware that this team does not go quietly. They gradually came back into the game and, with the crowd noise reaching thunderous levels they pushed forward and forced the under-pressure Branson players to make several hasty clearances out of defense.
At this point the referees became upset at some things they claimed to have heard said by fans standing on and behind the fencing on the sidelines. They called the game to a halt until the fans in question either moved into the stands or left the Fairgrounds completely. Perhaps the fans were questioning some of their debatable calls. That happens at sporting events. I’m sure some things were said but I’m not sure why the refs expected otherwise. This was a semi-final game and emotions were running high; fans (many were obviously families of the players) were understandably excited and the calls were infuriating to some. Besides, the noise of the crowd was deafening and the players could barely hear their coaches, who were closer to the field than the fans, so it was not as if the refs were treated to torrents of audible abuse by them. It did not seem to be anything to be too concerned about and the momentum being gained by AV was being halted by this unnecessary delay, not to mention players getting cold on this chilly night. The refs had been overly officious since their arrival at the venue, to the degree that coaches on both sides had become somewhat irritated by their excessive diligence regarding relatively trivial matters while being far less efficient in getting some of the calls correct on the field — surely a far more important task at hand. Nevertheless an eight-minute delay ensued during which Vice-Principal Jim Tomlin and Athletic Director Robert Pinoli ejected a few fans from the stadium, while Deputy Walker was on his way for back-up. It was a little melodramatic and not for the first time in school sports a veritable mountain was made out of a molehill thanks to the ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude of these officials.
The game finally resumed and AV continued to press forward. With ten minutes remaining, the Bulls finally cracked and following a melee in their goalmouth a defender handled the ball and Omar made no mistake from the resulting penalty kick. It was 2-3 to Branson. The crowd was on its feet and the chant ‘Si se puerde’ (‘Yes we can’) resounded around the stands. The Panthers pushed for an equalizer and Omar had a shot superbly pushed around the post by the outstretched Bulls ’keeper but, in throwing themselves into attack, gaps appeared in the AV defense and on the counterattack a fourth and clinching goal was scored by the Bulls in the final minute. Moments later the final whistle went and the match had finished 2-4 to Branson. The Panther’s wonderful season was at an end and they had fallen short of the Championship Game once again.
News filtered through that Calistoga, a team AV had beaten 4-0 earlier in the season, had shocked firm favorites Marin Academy in the other semi-final and would now face Branson in the Championship game. (A game Branson won). As the players slowly trooped off the pitch, Deputy Walker escorted the referees to their vehicles as if they were under some threat. The truth is nobody cared about them at all. Sorrow and tears were in plentiful supply on the sidelines as family and friends consoled the despondent Panther players. The seniors had played their final high school match and a sense of deep gloom was understandably pervasive.
However, hopefully when players have time to reflect they should be very proud of all that they achieved this season. They had an amazing 17-0 run before losing in the penultimate game of the regular season (to Roseland Prep who they had beaten earlier) and they easily won the league and ultimately finished with a 20 and 2 record. They had deservedly received the #3 seeding in the post-season tournament featuring the best 16 schools from the Bay Area and North Coast and had defeated regional powerhouse University for the first time in school history in the quarter-final last week. Furthermore, many individual performances over the season were among the best in the program’s history. Two were the very best: Sergio Gutierrez smashed the school scoring record of 34 goals he set as a sophomore the previous year. In 2009 he has scored a remarkable 64 goals and was unanimous League MVP. He will be back next year! Senior Co-Captain Omar Ferreyra easily beat the previous assists record and at times played better than any midfielder I have seen at this level. Other than these two the Co-Captain and fellow senior, Domingo Ferreyra, led by example both on and off the pitch and he has been a wonderful example to anyone wishing to combine sports and academics through his four years. ‘The Three Amigos’ — sophomores Junior Mendoza, Hector Cruz, and Elio Gonzales, played with an attitude and ability that belied their age and were perhaps the biggest reason, Sergio’s performances notwithstanding, that this season became one of true contention for the title rather than the re-building year that was thought to be the case back in August. Finally, in goal, freshman Christian Mendoza showed great promise and he will undoubtedly play a huge part in any success the program has in the coming years.
Special mention should go to the efforts of the four other senior starters — James Viera, Pepe Villamontez, Jose Garcia, and Rigo Guerrero, all of whom should feel very pleased with the part they played in this remarkable year, as should squad players Scott Johnston and Chavo Eligio. The bench players understood that their role on this team would be limited and the coaches appreciate this and their attitude and efforts at practice. This whole group was a pleasure to be with and coach. They played hard and in a sporting manner and the whole team and both coaches had a lot of fun together. The school and the Valley can be very proud of their efforts both on and off the field of play.
Finally, I would like to pay tribute once again to the work of Coach Tom Smith who in his 15th season is as dedicated to the cause as ever. Furthermore, while liking to do things his way (and why shouldn’t he?), he knows that I have a deep and passionate understanding of the sport in all its aspects and he respects that, thankfully agreeing with my ideas, methods, and insights. Cheers, Tom. Let’s do it all again in 2010!
Season Record (Won/Lost/Drawn): 19-2-0.