CAMPBELL — Watsonville head coach Roland Hedpegth smiled, shook his head and took a second to think.

How had his Wildcatz done it again?

After graduating a majority of last year’s Open Division champion team, losing arguably their best player for nearly the entire season and suffering through one of the rockiest stretches the program has ever seen, how had they found their way back to a Central Coast Section championship game?

“It’s just Watsonville soccer,” Hedgpeth said matter-of-factly.

The program’s mystique grew once again on Wednesday night at Westmont High in Campbell, as Watsonville senior Armando Ferro scored the game-winning goal in added time to beat No. 6 Menlo-Atherton, 1-0, and advance to their fourth straight section championship game.

The No. 2-seeded Wildcatz will play No. 8 Lincoln, which beat Mountain View to advance, on Saturday at Valley Christian in San Jose at 1 p.m. for the Division I championship. Watsonville will be looking for its 12th CCS title overall and fourth this decade.

“There’s something about this program,” Ferro said. “This school, we have really talented players and every year they come together to make a strong team. As you saw, the beginning of the season was rough — no communication — but we all bonded and pulled through when most needed.”

They pulled through at the tipping point of their season.

Watsonville sat in second-to-last place in the Monterey Bay League Gabilan division and was on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time since 1976 before reeling off five straight league wins to earn its way into the postseason.

Wednesday night’s win was its eighth straight victory and — as if they needed it — it came with a little extra momentum in the form of Ferro’s last-minute, game-winner off of senior Agustin Sorroza’s assist.

“The momentum’s here,” Ferro said, “we just have to keep it going.”

The two teams seemed destined for overtime with the differing styles clashing and offsetting one another.

Menlo-Atherton (10-8-4) sat back in its defensive shell and looked for its scoring opportunities on counter attacks, while Watsonville pushed the pace with its aggressive and attacking intermediate passing game.

All of Watsonville’s shots came from 20 yards or deeper as the Bears kept the Wildcatz off balance with their airtight and physical defense.

Menlo-Atherton had the best looks at goal before Ferro’s score broke the tie, earning a free kick from 15 yards away in the 29th minute and perfectly placing a corner kick during the 75th. But both times Watsonville’s junior keeper Isaac Frias recorded a superb save.

His rejection in the 75th minute, a one-handed punch save on a header while diving to his left, allowed the dozens of raucous Watsonville fans, which made the hour-long drive to the Silicon Valley, let out a giant sigh of relief.

On the field, Frias’ late stop energized and refocused his teammates.

Five minutes later Sorroza sent in a cross from the right side of the field to the box and Ferro tapped it in for the game-winner.

“I thought it might go to overtime but when we started getting the ball down here I thought we had a chance,” Hedgpeth said.

Saturday will be a moment that many of the Wildcatz have been waiting for before they ever threw on the black and gold Watsonville jersey.

Ferro started playing soccer when he was 3 and grew up watching several of his cousins play for the powerhouse Wildcatz. He was a fan of Watsonville soccer before he ever found his favorite pro team.

He is one of many current Watsonville players that were born into the Wildcatz family.

Frias has had half a dozen cousins play for Hedgpeth over the years and his two older brothers, Nacho and Israel, also suited up for Watsonville.

“I remember going to all of their games,” Frias said of his brothers. “It runs in the family.”

Much like Noe Robledo and his family, which has had multiple members flow through the Watsonville program, including his sister Annalee, who is currently one of the stars of the girl’s program.

“And the funny thing is we all wear [No.] 20,” Robledo said. “It’s a tradition.”

A tradition and passion that has been powering the Watsonville program for decades and why Hedgpeth said he believes his team will be fine on Saturday despite having little to no title-game experience on his roster.

“These kids have been looking forward to this for years and years,” Hedgpeth said. “They’ll be ready.”

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