Last Wednesday afternoon (Sept 22nd), against Santa Rosa against Roseland Prep — arguably the league’s strongest team — the Panthers were greeted with the usual intimidating atmosphere provided by close to 150 opposition fans hugging the sidelines. The Knights were the only team to beat AV last year in regular season play and have lost none of their starting players to graduation since then. Going into the match, both teams had 100% winning records in league play this season and therefore it would be a key game in deciding the title race.
Due to circumstances beyond the team’s control, a new line-up was enforced on the squad with the Panthers’ two central defensive positions now filled by Chava Gutierrez and Manny Almeida. Both were previously defensive starters but now each was playing a very different role. Apart from these two ‘learning on the job,’ as it were, another effect of the change was that in order to provide extra cover for this new defensive line-up, AV would now play with five midfielders — the three skillful but inexperienced freshmen along with Hector Cruz and Elio Gonzales, normally our second forward but brought back into the middle to add some experience to this vital unit. The other crucial result of these changes was that Sergio Gutierrez would have to be our lone striker, faced by three, and at times four, defenders.
The game started well for AV. Gonzales broke forward from midfield in the 4th minute and fed the ball to Sergio G on the right wing. The League MVP burst inside a bedazzled defender and shot low and hard past the despairing dive of the goalie. The ball went into the net off the far post. 1-0 to AV. The lead was very short-lived however and the Knights had already responded with a couple of dangerous offensive moves before, from yet another attack, a cross came into the Panther area from the right wing and a Knight connected perfectly with the ball on the edge of the penalty area, powerfully sending the ball high into Christian Mendoza’s goal from 20 yards out, giving the goalie no chance. 1-1.
Roseland continued to press but the Panthers were competing strongly for every loose ball, creating some dangerous attacks of their own. On one, Sergio G. was brought crashing to the ground by a reckless challenge on the edge of the Roseland area. The Knights set up their defensive ‘wall’ but it was to no avail as Sergio picked himself up from the foul and sent a thunderous shot into the far roof of the net from fully 25 yards out. A wonderful goal and it was now 2-1 to AV. Once again, the Knights answered back within five minutes when, from a disputed free-kick on the left side of the Panther defense, a cross was met by an unchallenged Knight who had the simplest of headers from just six yards out giving Mendoza no chance in the Panther goal. A poor goal to concede but it was perhaps no less than Roseland’s attacking ambitions deserved. It was 2-2 at the half.
The Panther coaches were very pleased with the first half display. The players had all done what had been asked of them to that point and the game was up for grabs, although Roseland has a very experienced and physically more powerful team and the odds were certainly in their favor. These odds were even greater given that, despite the presence of the Gutierrez boys’ parents, Antonio and Laura, and several other AV alumni and friends, the vast majority of the spectators were shouting loudly for the home team and the Knights were no doubt sensing victory after coming from behind twice already. The second half would be a tough and testing forty minutes for the talented yet young and revamped AV team.
To make matters harder, the Knights scored the go-ahead goal within just the second minute of the restart when hesitancy in the Panther defense allowed the Knights’ star striker, who had been completely nullified to that point by Manny Almeida, to run through on goal and put the ball under Mendoza’s diving body. 2-3 to Roseland. The game remained very tight with both the intensity on the field and the fan noise at season highs as the Panthers tried to get something going on offense against a very competent Knight defense. The Knights had a couple of chances to put the game beyond doubt but failed to do so, thus leaving the possibility of an equalizing goal for the Panthers.
A couple of chances were made but to no avail and the game seemed to be slipping away. Then, as the game entered the final moments, Chava Gutierrez, who had moved up from his defensive position for a corner, received the ball on the edge of the Knights’ penalty area. He dribbled past two defenders and got to the end-line before sending an excellent cross into the heart of the area where his brother, Sergio G., met it perfectly from about eight yards out to send a powerful header past the Knights’ ‘keeper and into the goal. The Panthers’ joyous celebrations had barely subsided when the final whistle went. It finished 3-3 and the Panthers work ethic, refusal to give up, and determination to beat the odds, had once again served them so very well.
I would like to add that given the new line-up and hostile environment, in my eight years of coaching at AV this was one of our most accomplished performances. Every player certainly gave their all, but one of them should to be singled out for extra praise. In leading the attack all alone, Sergio Gutierrez was confronted with, and frequently battered time and again by, the competent, tough, and uncompromising Roseland defense. He kept going back for more and his reward of three excellent goals was a tribute to not only this young man’s wonderful talent but also the unbelievable workrate and courage that he showed throughout the match. It was an exceptional performance by a very special player.
The post game dinner was also one for the ages as the team gathered around the tables at the Tho Vietnam restaurant in Santa Rosa and, following further ‘coaching’ by yours truly - this time on how to handle chop sticks, a delicious meal was enjoyed by one and all. It was a wonderful day in the world of AVHS Boys Soccer/Futbol,.
To make things even better, as a result of his performance, and many more similar ones over the past few seasons, Sergio Gutierrez is now attracting interest from Division 1 soccer colleges around the country, and at the time of writing it is hoped the interest show by UC Berkeley (Cal), the nation’s #14 ranked team, will lead to something very special for this deserving young man’s future, both on and off the field.
Meanwhile, the high intensity level shown throughout the Roseland match virtually disappeared completely for the game last Friday as the Panthers played host to the Geyserville Broncos, a team always near the bottom of the league. This season has so far been no different for them and the Panthers dominated proceedings from start to finish. Despite playing all twelve of the bench players for extended minutes the game finished 9-0 to AV with the goals coming from Elio Gonzales (3), Sergio Gutierrez (2), Carlos Mendoza (2), Hector Cruz, and Carlito Espinoza. Tonight (Wednesday, Sept 29th) the Panthers travel to Rincon Valley and then on Friday it’s the Homecoming game at The Fairgrounds in Boonville against Sonoma Academy at 5pm when your support would be greatly appreciated. ¥¥
(Current Record: League 7-0-1; Overall 9-1-1.)