SANTA CRUZ—The Aptos High boys’ soccer team sailed into enemy territory Tuesday evening hoping to gain a victory over Harbor High in the frigid-cold and inch closer to within the league standings.
Instead, the upset-minded Mariners had to jump overboard following a 2-1 loss to an overpowering Pirates squad that still remains undefeated in Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League play.
With the win, Harbor (12-1-2) improved to 7-0-0 to remain atop the league, while Aptos (7-6-0) dropped to 3-2-0 and are falling behind in the standings.
“I believe we played a good game, but we couldn’t finish at the end of the mark,” said Aptos head coach Roberto Zúñiga. “We pressed hard in the last few minutes but we couldn’t capitalize.”
Prior to Tuesday night’s matchup, Harbor had only allowed three goals in all of league play and were galvanized by their suffocating defense.
“Our defense is solid,” said Harbor goalie Damian Escalante. “We have not gotten scored on very much this season.”
Aptos’ season has been one of ups and downs, starting with a three-game losing streak to begin league play followed by winning three consecutive games.
Following a 2-0 loss against Harbor on Jan. 6, the Mariners had Tuesday night’s game circled on their calendars.
Harbor began the game with an immediate goal by Raul Calles less than two minutes in to shift the dynamic for the rest of the game.
After the remainder of the first half was dominated by possession changes, Brandon Jimenez’s goal put the Pirates ahead, 2-0, with less than a minute into the second half.
“I think you try coming out and for them it worked out,” Zúñiga said. “We were caught flat footed.”
At this point, the Mariners were down a pair of goals against the only undefeated team in the league and it was starting to look like a blowout.
That was until Aptos’ Kai Walsh managed to knock in his third goal of the season, a long shot that went through several defenders with about 20 minutes remaining.
Despite being down the entire game, the Mariners were winning the time of possession but were still held back by a stifling Pirates defense.
“They were stopping a lot of our opportunities to score,” Walsh said. “They had a good defense, so it was hard to get those good shots off.”
With time ticking down, the Mariners pushed hard to attempt to even the score before the final blow of the whistle.
Aptos got a shot off that would’ve given them the draw with just several minutes remaining. They were also nearly the first team to put up two goals against Harbor, which has recorded nine shutouts this season.
With outstretched arms, Escalante made a diving one-handed save before watching the remainder of the time expire.
“We feel fantastic,” Escalante said. “It’s a win closer to winning league. Aptos is a tough opponent.”
While the outcome shows a loss in the scorebooks, Aptos knows now more than ever they are capable of beating any team they face.
They have come away with resounding victories including a 6-0 win against Monterey and 3-0 win over Watsonville.
“It’s a tough loss but we’ve got to just keep our heads up and keep going,” Walsh said. “We’ve still got more games.”
Harbor has all but secured a Central Coast Section postseason berth and every game moving forward is critical for the Mariners.
The Pirates have three games remaining in league starting with a matchup against Soquel on Thursday, who they handily beat 3-1 earlier this season.
The Mariners have plenty to take away from their narrow loss and they are looking to finish the season strong.
“We’ll move on, there’s two spots that are available for postseason,” Zúñiga said. “We look forward to keeping our focus and being who we are. We’re a technical team.”
Aptos will play at Santa Cruz (5-2-1, 3-1-1) in a match that may have playoff implications for both teams.