SAN JOSE—Watsonville High senior forward Mateo Arias walked around the middle of the pitch, pumping both fists in the air and yelling “Vamos [Lets go]” to his teammates.
The Wildcatz boys’ soccer team had all the reason to celebrate after the defeating top-seeded Branham High, 2-1, in Friday evening’s Central Coast Section Open Division finals at Del Mar High School.
Arias was ecstatic about walking off the field as a CCS champion, accomplishing one of the team’s goals from the onset of the season.
He was also beaming with joy for head coach Roland Hedgpeth, who is in his 50th year coaching soccer.
“It’s even more special because there’s been rumors about his retirement,” Arias said. “So giving him a CCS around that time is amazing … what more can we ask for? This is an awesome feeling.”
A little more than 1,000 people filled the stands and more than half of them showed up to cheer for Watsonville’s beloved Wildcatz.
They also witnessed some history as Hedgpeth, 79, won his 10th CCS title over his prolific run with Watsonville.
It was the first time since the 2016-17 campaign that Hedgpeth and the Wildcatz hoisted a CCS trophy. He has captured the lion’s share of the program’s 12 CCS soccer titles and led them to 17 championship game appearances since his first finals game in 1988.
Hedgpeth, who has been mulling over retirement, said this year’s title was extra special because of the group they put together this season.
“Every kid I’ve coached I’ve enjoyed, these are a little different,” he said. “There’s really nobody that stands out but when they play together they do stand out.”
Senior midfielder Lombardo Flores said winning the CCS championship was everything that he expected.
“I feel excited for everything, winning. Every other game was a hard game, that’s what we expected,” he said. “As I said, we were going to come through with everything and that’s exactly what we did. But the job’s not done. We gotta go to state now.”
No. 2 Watsonville (16-4-3), who was ranked No. 40 in the state by MaxPreps and won the Pacific Coast Athletic League’s powerhouse Gabilan division, earned a shot to make a run in the CIF Regional Soccer Championship. The first round begins Tuesday evening at 5pm.
The division placements and seedings will be available Sunday afternoon.
“The job’s not finished,” Arias said. “We’re going to be focused to win state, that’s our next goal and we’re not going to slack off. For most of us this is possibly our last game. We gotta focus, savor the moment right now and get back to work.”
Arias said they’ve been playing with confidence and he felt like the first two postseason games prepared them for Friday’s championship.
It was a pretty even start and both teams managed to control the ball well. The defenders on both ends also made nice plays to shut down the open lanes to prevent any shots on goal.
Flores said the Bruins’ players were physical and they knew how to maneuver with the ball.
“They were in the championship for a reason,” Flores said. “They proved to be a good team but we came through and we worked it out.”
The Bruins knocked on the door first with a pair of shots that sailed past the right post.
Shortly later, the Wildcatz saw an opportunity of their own when senior Saul Valencia found Sebastian Abonce with a quick pass. But his shot was saved by Branham goalie Alton Acosta.
Watsonville continued to put pressure and found itself in scoring position again after Flores’ corner kick found senior center back David Ibarra, who had a chance to put the first points on the scoreboard but his shot missed the mark.
Both teams remained scoreless after 20 minutes and they failed to capitalize on golden chances set up by some crisp passing.
Branham had another moment to take the game’s first lead just before halftime. Senior forward Jesus Garcia had a clear lane and took the shot, but only to see the ball sail above Watsonville goalie Edgar Angel.
The ‘Catz came out of the break in high gear and Arias nearly put them ahead with a header that almost found the back of the net.
The constant pressure finally paid off after Antonio Alvarado looped a shot over the goalie’s head in the 44th minute, giving Watsonville the lead at 1-0.
“They gave me the pass, I turned around and I saw the keeper for a little bit … shot it and it went over him,” Alvarado said.
Alvarado believes the score gave them a boost, especially because goals were hard to come by at that point.
A sense of frustration also started to show by the Bruins. The result was a yellow card issued to the bench in the 49th minute.
They managed to brush it off and were able to refocus on a match that seemed to be slipping away from them.
Junior forward Eli Derazizyan gave Branham its best chance of the night to score after his shot barely missed the top crossbar.
Arias, who sat out for most of the second half, returned with roughly 15 minutes left in the game. His impact was immediately felt and so was the ‘Catz’s ferocious attack on offense.
Flores was set up with his fifth corner kick of the evening and he sent the ball directly in front of the net. The rebound fell in front of senior Oscar Herrera and his shot bounced off of a Branham defender.
Watsonville finally broke through and gave itself a small cushion after Flores scored the teams’ second goal of the night. His sensational header was set up by a beautiful cross pass from Yahir Alcantar after Alvarado saved the ball from going out of bounds.
“I know [Alcantar] always does that center-in [pass], I’ll be waiting for it right here,” Flores said. “That’s exactly what I did and I put it right behind the net.”
Up two goals, Flores said he was still nervous because of the fact that the Bruins—who put up 62 goals this season—were still capable of scoring at any time. He was right.
Branham scored in stoppage time, giving them a glimpse of hope to send the match into overtime. It was too little too late as the bench players stormed on the field once the final whistle blew, showering teammates with their water bottles in celebration.
The Wildcatz held on for the win to continue their remarkable run.
“I definitely knew it was not over. It’s not over until the ref blew the final whistle and that’s when I knew,” said Flores, who made his way to give Hedgpeth a congratulatory hug.