WATSONVILLE—The unofficial credo for the Watsonville High boys’ soccer team this season has been team unity.
The No. 2 seeded Wildcatz were in perfect harmony, per usual, in their 2-0 shutout win against No. 7 Modesto in Tuesday’s opener of the CIF NorCal Regionals Division I playoffs.
Senior forward Oscar Herrera, who recorded an assist for Watsonville, said getting the victory couldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for their solid team play.
“It was a team effort,” he said. “It wasn’t only one of us, it was just a team effort, honestly. In that second half we scored and that’s kind of what made us get more adrenaline to keep on going. It’s what we came for, to win state.”
The ‘Catz will now host No. 3 De La Selle (20-6-1) of Concord, the North Coast Section D-I champion, in the semifinals Thursday at 5pm.
Watsonville came close to a NorCal Regional title after a 2-1 loss to Marin Academy of San Rafael in the 2019 D-II title game. A year later, they suffered an early exit in the quarterfinals after a 2-0 loss to Gunn High.
Going into Tuesday’s match, Watsonville jumped from No. 33 to No. 24 in the MaxPreps state rankings with its win against Branham in Friday night’s Central Coast Section Open Division finals.
The Panthers, winners of the Central California Athletic League, were ranked No. 38 in the state. They lost 5-0 to Whitney High in the Sac-Joaquin Section D-I finals.
Junior forward Alexi Luna said they were still disappointed after last week’s loss to Whitney. He believes it had a big impact on them heading into Tuesday’s first-round match against Watsonville.
He also mentioned they just happened to face a Wildcatz team that’s playing in-sync. He took notice that players were on the same page and at times passed the ball without having to look at each other.
“I think that they move the ball well, something we couldn’t really defend,” Luna said. “They made our team tired, by the second half our team was dead.”
Herrera said he wanted to make sure this year’s story wouldn’t have the same outcome as the previous two trips to the NorCal Regionals.
Three minutes into Tuesday’s game he had a header for an early goal, but the score was negated after he was called offside.
Still, the ‘Catz looked razor sharp for the rest of the match, keeping the ball inside Modesto’s zone for most of the evening.
“It’s just the commitment that we have,” Herrera said. “It’s what we do at practice and it’s just a routine…we have to keep the effort going, all 40 minutes we have to keep on going. Communication is really the key to it.”
They had several chances early on to put some points on the board, including a free kick taken at the 35-yard line by senior midfielder Lombardo Flores.
His pass to junior forward Antonio Alvarado landed directly in front of him but the ball bounced off his chest too hard, causing it to go out of play.
Panthers defensive backs Mauro Hernandez Gonzalez, Adrian Silva, Ricardo Galan and team captain Jordan Hill did a great job of stopping the Wildcatz’s offensive attack despite giving up the early no-goal.
Watsonville coach Roland Hedgpeth said they struggled to score and felt like they had control of the ball for what seemed like most of the match.
“As long as we kept that No. 10 [Alexis Luna] under control, they didn’t have anything else,” Hedgpeth said.
Herrera got his second good look of the evening after he received the ball off a rebounded pass and took it inside the penalty box where he was fouled by a pair of Panthers defenders.
Arias was given the green light to take the penalty kick and he blasted the ball to the back of the net in the 52nd minute, putting Watsonville ahead 1-0.
It was a wake up call for the Panthers, who finally began to put some pressure midway through the second half. Luna led the attack by finding ways to slip past Watsonville’s defense and finding ways to create some offense.
Luna came into Tuesday’s match with a team-leading 30 goals and 21 assists this season.
Hedgpeth said the goal was to have one defender tight on Luna and another defender follow him wherever he went. The Wildcatz didn’t allow him to record a single point.
“They were always up on our side of the field,” Luna said. “It’s difficult to play against two to three defenders. I did what I could, I took my shots but they didn’t go in.”
Senior defensive back Sebastian Abonce was able to record a point with an assist. He orchestrated the Wildcatz’s second goal that all started with a pass to Herrera.
Herrera beat Modesto junior Dylan Angeles to the ball and then juked him, giving him space to dish it off to a wide open Flores for the score and a two-goal lead in the 75th minute.
“When they kicked it, I was just sprinting and I saw [Angeles] from the corner of my eye. I had to cut back and hit him with my left,” Herrera said. “Lucky [Flores] was there, we scored…it was just a family effort.”
The two-goal cushion was all the ‘Catz needed to advance to Thursday’s semifinals against De La Selle. Kickoff is slated for 5pm.
The Spartans, who are ranked No. 39 in the state and No. 2 in the NCS, advanced after their 4-3 win against No. 6 Sanger in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.
Whitney (19-2-2), which earned the top seed in the D-I field, defeated No. 8 Reddwood, 2-1, in their quarterfinals match Tuesday.
The Wildcats will host No. 4 Reedley (20-6-3), which defeated No. 5 Branham, 2-0, in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.
Hedgpeth said at this point it doesn’t matter who they face because each team is going to be tougher than the previous one.
“Just as long as our team knows it’s going to be a much stronger team [we play],” he said.