ROCKLIN—For a minute, it almost felt like Watsonville High senior center back Lombardo Flores was on the verge of orchestrating a miraculous comeback for the boys’ soccer team Saturday.
He scored a late goal in the California Interscholastic Federation Northern California Regionals Division I title match, creating a buzz on the sidelines that was missing for most of the evening.
But it was too little, too late for the No. 2 seeded Wildcatz as they watched their season come to an end in a 3-1 loss to top-seeded Whitney High.
“They’re a good team, what can I say? Good team, physical team,” Flores said.
Watsonville was also dealing with injuries including senior goalie Edgar Angel, who wasn’t able to return after sustaining a rib injury in the penalty shoot-out win against De La Salle in Thursday’s semifinals.
Senior forward/midfielder Mateo Arias, the hero that came up with the game-saving block against the Spartans, made the start for Wildcatz. He allowed two goals in the first half and his absence on the offensive side was a major hit for them.
“The injuries were bad but we tried our best today,” Arias said.
Going into the match, the Wildcatz (18-5-3) were ranked No. 28 in the state according to MaxPreps. They were looking to rise in the rankings with a state championship win.
Instead, it was the Wildcats (21-2-2), ranked No. 2 in the state and No. 8 in the nation, who came sprinting out of the gate and never looked back.
Watsonville coach Roland Hedgpeth said his team was not going to make excuses for the loss—they just didn’t get it done.
“We fought to the end, even with 10 down we were still fighting as much as we could,” said Hedgpeth, who paced back and forth on the sidelines during the game. “I think I got more involved in this game than I have in a lot of games … in other games, I kind of let it go but this one I was really trying to get it going.”
The Wildcatz, normally smooth and composed on defense and feisty on the attack, were off when it counted most. It could have been the three-hour trek to the Sacramento area or perhaps the excitement from the police escorted bus send-off they had in downtown Watsonville.
“I think with everything [the community] did I think they deserved the win, but unfortunately we weren’t able to give that,” Flores said. “Hopefully they’re not too upset about that.”
Hedgpeth said maybe it was a combination of a lot of things, including the bus ride and mini-parade. But he said it was mostly a lot of mistakes on their part.
“We tried to test the team to see how they were and we let them get more than we should’ve,” he said.
It was an uphill battle for the Wildcatz from the get-go. The first blunder came in the fifth minute on Robbie Mora-Arias’ quick goal that gave Whitney an early 1-0 lead.
Minutes later, Flores took an elbow to the face just above his right eye and began to bleed, yet, no foul was called. He had to come out of the game to get bandaged and returned midway through the first half.
“There were a lot of injuries and a lot of players that we had to sub in,” Flores said. “We could’ve done a little bit better.”
Arias added that sometimes fouls don’t dictate the game but he said it was obvious the officials weren’t giving them the same treatment as Whitney.
“How do you not mark that? You know,” he said about Flores’ injury. “It’s upsetting … the refs weren’t that great today.”
Whitney continued to play aggressively and senior defender Keiji Watanabe was called for a yellow card. However, it didn’t seem to faze them after senior forward Hector Serrano Martin extended the lead, 2-0, with a goal in the 35th minute.
Whitney’s forceful play caught up to them again after junior midfielder Nathan Cochenour was called for a yellow card, the team’s second of the first half.
Still, they held onto a two-goal lead and the momentum over the ‘Catz going into halftime.
“They were just aggressive and we were trying to equal the aggressiveness,” Arias said. “Their high-ends, big guys.”
Watsonville made some adjustments at the break and Hedgpeth mentioned that switching things around midway through a match can be difficult.
Arias went back to his normal spot at the midfielder position and junior goalie Jorge Magleleno took over duties in front of the net in the 50th minute.
“I was hoping something would change and it did. We were able to score one but this is a team effort and it’s not just about me,” Arias said. “Everybody was putting in hard work, we were rushing for the ball. We were trying to get in there. We only got one.”
In the 55th minute, Magleleno allowed Whitney’s third goal after a botched pass attempt to a defender was intercepted by Serrano, who recorded his second goal of the evening.
The Wildcatz wouldn’t give up that easy, though.
“We actually started connecting more passes and that’s how we were able to score the one goal,” Flores said. “We had a little bit more opportunities when we first started touching the ball.”
Flores finally put them on the scoreboard with a goal in the 59th minute, giving Watsonville back some life in what seemed to be a lopsided affair up to that point. Arias was credited with the assist.
They sustained an attack for the rest of the game, including a long-distance strike by senior midfielder/defender Sebastian Abonce that nearly got past the defense.
But the ultimate final strike came after senior forward/midfielder Sergio Jimenez was called for his second yellow card, disqualifying him for the rest of the match. That left Watsonville with just 10 players on the field.
The Wildcats of Rocklin managed to hold off the Wildcatz of Watsonville until the final whistle, securing the win for the D-I championship.
Hedgpeth, who won his 10th Central Coast Section title this season, said it was still an outstanding season and this has been the most special group he’s coached during his 50-year coaching career.
“I’m disappointed in myself, I’m more disappointed for them,” he said.
Still, it was a remarkable run put on by the ‘Catz, who captured the Pacific Coast Athletic League’s Gabilan Division title—the program’s 47th overall league championship—and their 12th CCS title.
Arias, who played with most of his teammates on the freshman squad up to the abbreviated Covid-19 season, said it was one heck of a ride.
“I feel like I’ve been growing up with these guys,” he said. “Most of these guys I’ve known since elementary school, pre-school even. This is it, this is it for high school. It hurts but it’s part of life.”