APTOS—The Aptos High girls’ soccer team was one of the hottest squads heading into Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League play and proved it by winning its first three matches.
They were tested once again Thursday night against a tough Soquel High group that was also looking to keep their unblemished league record intact.
In the end, it was the Mariners who came out on top following a 3-1 win over the Knights in league action.
“We went in not knowing what we’re going to be facing, but this one was really big for us because it keeps our momentum in the season and it pushes us farther,” said Aptos senior Gwen Chapman, who scored the go-ahead goal just two minutes into the second half.
“We know we have a chance of winning at [Central Coast Section playoffs], we have a chance at all of this. We just need to keep up the momentum, keep up the passion and just keep going.”
Sophomore goalkeeper Alessandra Zuniga and freshman Evelyn Pini each had three saves in front of the net for the Mariners, who improved to 4-0-0 in the league standings and are 8-3-1 overall this season.
Aptos coach Gina Castañeda always meets with the players prior to their matches, but noticed they seemed a bit nervous going into Thursday’s meeting with the Knights.
Soquel and Santa Cruz have historically been their two biggest rivals within the SCCAL, which also makes them a roadblock on the path to a league championship.
“No game is easy but those are the big games to play,” Castañeda said. “I was glad they were able to settle it down but they played with a lot of intensity. We just kept working the ball around to be able to find opportunities to score.”
With first place in the SCCAL on the line, the tensions were high from the start. Both teams needed a moment to settle down before realizing what was at stake.
“You want them to play hard but you want them to be relaxed,” Castañeda said. “It’s just getting them to calm themselves down to a place where they actually use the skill set that they have.”
The Mariners have recently been working on getting in triangles in positions where they can touch the ball around to get them out of tight situations, along with a lot of critical thinking.
Chapman said they worked on the connections in the middle and to the outside in Thursday’s match against Soquel.
“I think as the game progressed we started to figure that out,” she said. “Obviously we had moments where we’d get all frantic, but we’d eventually calm it down. We were able to make those connections and be successful.”
Chapman knew that the Knights would attempt to send the ball down the field every chance they could get.
Aptos had some minor issues with players positioned too far back or forward, which prevented them from making connections between the defense and the offense.
Yet, they were able to pull it together and stuck to their game plan.
“We were finding there were gaps there and we just needed to rethink everything, just find our space,” Chapman said.
Kaitlyn Murphy struck first when her shot landed in the top right corner of the net for a goal in the fifth minute that was assisted by freshman Alexa Castaneda, giving the Mariners an early 1-0 lead.
Shortly later, Soquel tied the score at 1-all in the 15th minute when Lily Montesinos delivered a 30-yard strike past Zuniga, who tried to punch the ball away but instead it ended up going behind her into the net.
Chapman said they made the necessary corrections at halftime and she brought it to the attention of both the forwards and midfielders about executing passes on the through ball.
“We started making those moves together and just stayed connected, that’s what made us successful,” Chapman said.
It didn’t take long for the Mariners to recapture the lead coming out of the break.
Castaneda recorded her second assist of the evening when she found Chapman, who sprinted past a pair of Knights defenders and blasted a shot to the back of the net that gave Aptos a 2-1 lead in the 42nd minute.
Angelique Nuñez capped off the scoring in the 57th, giving the Mariners a two-goal cushion en route to a win. Murphy was credited with the assist.
“You always have to keep going. They’re playing hard, we have to keep up with that,” Chapman said. “We can play a possession game but we can’t just feel at ease with a 3-1 lead.”
Aptos is lined up to bring back home an SCCAL crown for the first time since the 2019-20 season.
Castañeda said, as cliche as it sounds, they’re not going to look three games ahead and will take it one game at a time.
The beginning of the season was a challenge for Castañeda after losing 12 seniors due to graduation and having to rebuild the program. She has three seniors on this year’s roster including Chapman, who the coaching staff is depending on to pull the team together.
Castañeda designed the non-league portion of their schedule to be challenging for a reason. The Aptos skipper wanted players to see what it takes to be a resilient group.
A bond is forming right in front of her eyes and she’s proud of the players for making a commitment to play as a unit, both on the attacking and defending side.
“It took us a while to get there but we’re there now and it’s great to see,” Castañeda said.
Aptos (8-3-1, 4-0-0) will play at Harbor (7-6-2, 1-2-2) on Jan. 24 at 7pm.