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AV Panthers — 2010 Champions!

Last Saturday (Nov 13th), on a sunny afternoon at Tom Smith Field in Boonville, two goals in the final breathtaking four minutes of play enabled the Anderson Valley High School Boys Soccer team to secure a deserved victory over Sonoma Academy in the year’s Post-Season Championship Final and thus give the school its first ever post season title in any sport. The 2-1 win set off a tremendous celebration amongst the many people from our community in attendance and the med­als were handed out in an emotional ceremony by Superintendent of Schools, J.R. Collins, and Val Smith, widow of the recently deceased Tom Smith, who started the soccer program sixteen years ago. As someone who has been coaching the team for eight of those seasons, I am very aware that this is the climax of many years work. It was also the end of what had certainly been a very eventful eight days to cap off the soccer team’s final march into local history.

As the final whistle blew on the previous Saturday afternoon (Nov 6th) at Tom Smith Field, signaling the end of the quarter-final game that had seen the AV Panthers crush Bay School of San Francisco by a score of 9-0, the immediate matter of concern was how to ensure that the semi-final would also be played here in the Valley. This match was scheduled for last Wednes­day (Nov 10th), a school day, and therefore it had to take place after school, in the evening under floodlights. AV had the higher seeding than the opposition — Drew High School of San Francisco — and thus had the right to host the game, but there are no lights at the school field so the only alternative, if the game was to be played here in the Valley, was to play the match under the lights at The Fairgrounds. However, the pitch at that venue was in very bad shape and had been deemed unsafe since it had been used for the rodeo at The County Fair, following which a referee had twisted his knee at the team’s Homecoming game in October. It appeared that the game would have to be played in S.F. where Drew had access to Kezar Stadium and its floodlit field. This seemed very unfair. The AV team did not want to lose the home field advantage that they had worked so hard for all season and besides, the community would want to see the game and the vast majority would not be able to get to the game if it was played in SF.

The community of high school sports folk now stepped up as I spread the word of our predicament and a crew of about forty high school sports players and a dozen or so adults assembled at The Fairgrounds last Tuesday (Nov 9th) afternoon and began to work with tractors, wheelbarrows, spades, rakes and a whole load of dirt and light gravel to make sure the field was play­able. Their hard work and determination to get it done paid off and, while the condition of the surface was still not very good for soccer, it was safe and the game could go ahead. Those who led the way in this wonderful effort, and to whom the soccer program is very grateful, were Palmer Toohey and her father Bill Holcomb, Ben Anderson (Baseball Coach), Eddie Slotte (Basketball Coach), John Toohey and his AV High School Football team, Tony Pardini and his Panther Cubs football team, Mike the Groundskeeper at AV High who has done a wonderful job all season long, and Jim Brown and his staff at the Fairgrounds. On behalf of the soccer pro­gram, ‘Many thanks to one and all!’

The semi-final game kicked off at 7pm on Wednes­day with a crowd of about 120 in attendance that swelled to over 150 by midway through the first half. Up to that point, AV had generally dominated the play but the score remained 0-0 and Drew certainly looked dangerous on their counter attacks. Neither team was able to get into any sort of rhythm as a result of the frantic pace of the play and uneven surface but AV did create a few half chances whilst Drew had two dangerous free-kicks, one of which was cleared off the line by Panther defensive stalwart, Chava Gutierrez. Finally, in the final moments of the half, the deadlock was broken when Elio Gonzales fed the ball through to Sergio Gutierrez who had briefly managed to get away from his marker only to be brought crashing to the ground by the Drew ‘keeper. It was a penalty kick and the ‘keeper was lucky not to get red-carded and sent off for his reckless ‘last man’ challenge. Sergio picked himself up and made no mistake from the kick. The roars of approval from the partisan crowd had barely subsided when the half-time whistle blew.

The second half could not have started better for AV when right from the kick-off, Gonzales and S. Gutierrez exchanged passes three times as they threaded their way through the Drew defense and only fifteen seconds had passed, and not a single Drew player had touched the ball, when Sergio placed the ball low and hard past the advancing Drew ‘keeper and the crowd erupted once more. 2-0 to AV. However, this is a Drew team that has a splendid team spirit and they came back with some sustained pressure on the Panther goal that eventually resulted in them pulling a goal back in the 50th minute after a twenty yard shot had hit the cross bar and bounced down on the line where a quick-reacting Drew player had the simplest of tap-ins. 2-1 to AV.

The Panthers restored their two-goal lead almost immediately when after receiving a cross inside the Drew area, Elio Gonzales took a couple of steps with the ball before being hammered to the ground from behind by a defender. It was a very clumsy challenge and another penalty kick for AV and once again Sergio G. made no mistake. 3-1 to AV.. The frenetic pace of the game continued with both teams giving their all but it was Drew who made the crucial move when, in the 66th minute, from a corner kick, one of their many big men rose to beat the despairing challenge of Panther ‘keeper Christian Mendoza to head the ball in from close range. 3-2 to AV.

There were still nearly fifteen minutes to go but AV maintained their composure, kept possession of the ball well, and with the help of two fine saves by Mendoza they were able to hold on to clinch an historic victory and the celebrations in the stands and on the field were certainly something to behold...

Three days later, as mentioned at the top, the oppo­nents in the Final were the Coyotes of Sonoma Acad­emy. This is a team the Panthers had beaten twice in the regular season but one that is very well coached, is physically strong, and, needless to say in a game of this magnitude, they would not simply act as the proverbial lambs to the slaughter. They would certainly have a plan to stop Sergio Gutierrez and frustrate the Panther offense, no doubt hoping to score themselves on a coun­terattack and hold on from that point on.

With over two hundred fans in attendance, including a contingent of over thirty from Sonoma, the game kicked off and it was immediately apparent that the Coyote game plan was similar to that described above — they placed their star player, Johnnie Moon, on Sergio, and had five others in defense making up a 6-3-1 formation. The game was fairly even in the opening exchanges although AV were finding it difficult play any cohesive soccer as the fast-tackling Coyotes closed the Panthers down very quickly and tackled them very well. Then in the 20th minute the worst scenario for the Panthers came to fruition. Following a corner that was not cleared sufficiently well, a Coyote midfield player sent in a thunderous shot from twenty five yards out that flew into the top corner of Christian Mendoza’s goal. 0-1 to Sonoma and they had got their one goal — they could now sit back, defend in depth, and hope to frustrate the Panther offense the rest of the way. They succeeded in doing this for the remainder of the half although AV was their own worst enemies with uncharacteristically poor passing and an inexplicable lack of intensity. In fact the Coyotes were the better team in the first forty and their goal, coupled with the Panther’s disappointing display, had clearly deflated AV as witnessed by the home side trudging off at the break as if they were down 0-5 or so.

The Panther coaches pointed out that the game was far from over and the need to concentrate on the game plan and not get frustrated was of the utmost importance. There is so much ability on the team and, if coupled with an intense effort, their chances would come. The opening minutes of the second half saw the Panthers attack in waves and soon the Coyotes announced their intentions as they pulled two further players back into defense so that they now adopted a very rare 8-1-1 formation. They were clearly not concerned with adding more goals, and why should they be? They had earned their lead and AV would have to do something about it. The second half was going to be one-way traffic towards Sonoma’s goal and it would be up to AV to conjure up ‘a little magic’ to get back in the game.

This Coyote tactic actually worked somewhat in the Panthers favor as they seemed to gain some confidence as a result of having far more possession and time on the ball and several half-chances came their way. However they were unable to capitalize and Sonoma almost doubled their lead when, on one of their two attacks in the second half, a shot saw Mendoza in the AV goal pull off a superb one-handed save to keep the score at 0-1. A two-goal deficit at that point may have been too much for AV to claw back from.

Urged on by the increasingly vociferous crowd, AV continued to push forward and dominate the play but with a big size advantage, some fine defensive play, and exceptional work rate, the Coyotes held on. At one point Mendoza in the AV goal was the only player not in the final third of the field around the Sonoma goal. It was one-way traffic and the pressure on the Sonoma defense was relentless but shots continued to fly wide or high and the Coyote ’keeper and his defenders’ heroic efforts continued. With time running out, and that ‘little bit of magic’ from AV not forthcoming, it appeared that the Sonoma tactics would pay off.

In the 76th minute, with just four minutes remaining, freshman Jose Gaxiola sent in yet another corner. This one went just over the tall central defender’s head to where the leaping Sergio Gutierrez elevated his 5’5” frame just enough to meet the ball perfectly six yards from goal and head past the outstretched Coyote keeper’s groping hands and into the net. It was 1-1! The crowd went absolutely berserk as AV went for the decisive winning goal but with so little time remaining it appeared that extra-time was inevitable.

With less than a minute remaining, and the crowd now sending out deafening roars and singing chants of encouragement, Sergio G. fed the ball to Elio Gonzales who burst forward past two defenders and into the Sonoma area where he sent in a shot low towards the keeper’s right hand post. The goalie made a fine save but could only parry the ball to the feet of the in-rushing Omar Solano who shot towards goal from five yards out. The keeper managed to block this effort only to see the ball go straight back to Omar and the talented freshman, maintaining a level of composure that belied his years, made no mistake the second time as he hammered it back under the goalie’s body into the net. A scrappy yet ‘beautiful’ goal and it was 2-1 to AV!

The final thirty seconds were played out amid scenes of unbridled joy on the sidelines and when the final whistle blew moments later the AV Panthers had won the school’s first ever post season Championship and the celebrations were worthy of such an achievement. The Sonoma team had played their hearts out and were obviously very upset but I don’t think there can be any complaints that the better team had won and, having collected the trophy and their winners medals, the party got underway, courtesy of the player’s mothers and friends who once again put on a tremendous feast at the side of the field for all to enjoy. The whole scene was quite fantastic, I must say, and the tomale/enchilada/etc plate that was handed to me on this very special day was better than ever!

It has been a tremendous team effort all year long and the list of those who have been a part of this historic ride is long and widespread throughout the community. This I shall get to in next week’s final column of the season, but for now, on a purely soccer note, it should certainly be mentioned that Sergio Gutierrez’ goal was his 65th of the season and he thus set a new all-time school goal-scoring record (he had set the previous record of 64 last year) — a remarkable achievement giving him a total of 129 goals in his final two season at the school!

Final 2010 Season Record (W-L-D): League 14-2-2; Overall 19-3-4. ¥¥

Standing (L-R): Louis Murillo, Kevin Espinoza, Juan Lua, Danny Espinoza, Asst. Coach Eddie Ferreyra, Chuy Sanchez, Alex Vargas, Chavo Eligio, Asst. Coach Nikola Milojevich, Carlos Mendosa,

Christian Mendosa, Jose Gaxiola, Eric Guerrero, Head coach Steve Sparks.

Kneeling (L-R): Sammy Alvarez, Carlos Espinosa, Hector Cruz, Manny Almeida, Sergio Gutierrez,

Elio Gonzales, Omar Solano, Lalo Avelos, Juve Juvenal.

Lying down: Chava Gutierrez.

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