HANFORD — The Sierra Pacific girls soccer team played like champions Wednesday afternoon. As a result, they walked off the pitch as champions.
The Golden Bears captured their first-ever East Sequoia League championship in school history with a 2-1 victory over Granite Hills.
“Oh my gosh, it’s a big accomplishment,” Sierra Pacific defender Ashlyn Martinez said. “It’s an amazing feeling being the first team to win league champs for girls soccer at SP. I love it.”
The entire team showed their enthusiasm by dousing third-year head coach Christa Smith with a championship shower. Smith — caught completely off guard — couldn’t help but smile after the shock of icy water wore off.
“I am so proud of them,” Smith said. “They have gone from the bottom last year to making a name for themselves this year.”
It was hard to imagine a better game being played on Wednesday than this one. It was a winner-take-all scenario.
If Sierra Pacific won or tied, they were league champions. If Granite Hills won, they were the tops of the ESL.
It was one game to validate a season. One game to determine a champion. One game to prove who was top bear: Golden Bears or Grizzlies?
Sierra Pacific (13-6-5, 7-1-2 ESL) got off to a rough start by giving up a goal in only the third minute of the game.
Granite Hills played a through ball in the middle of the field where a Grizzlies forward got behind the defense. Sierra Pacific goalkeeper Makayla Alepisco just missed getting to the ball first and Granite Hills put in the goal for the lead.
Unperturbed, the Golden Bears had already discussed the possibility of trailing early.
“Well, we had actually prepared for that,” Sierra Pacific forward Macy Lemos said. “Before [the game], we said if we go down 1-0 it’s not the end of the world. We just have to get ourselves back together and score some goals to win it.”
They did just that eight minutes later. In the 11th minute, Emma Martella got a through ball and used her speed to beat two defenders into the box. She shot from about 12 yards out into the left corner where Granite Hills goalkeeper Ismenis Hernandez dove, but couldn’t make the play.
The quick score was a result of pressure and precision passing. They were first to 50-50 balls — a theme that would carry throughout the game — and kept the ball in the attacking third.
“It was a bit of relief,” Martinez said about the equalizer. “After that, I saw we started getting more momentum and I knew we were going to get this win. I just knew it was going to happen.”
The numbers didn’t lie. After the goal, it was all Sierra Pacific for the remainder of the game.
The Golden Bears generated two corner kicks in the 15th minute with the latter resulting in an Olivia Fagundes header that barely went wide of the post.
Delaney Winters had a chance two minutes later, but Hernandez made a spectacular save on the line.
The pressure didn’t stop and as a result, the Grizzlies finally made a mistake and it was a big one. Martella dribbled the ball into the penalty area, moved back toward the 18-yard mark and was fouled from behind in the 36th minute.
The referee immediately signaled the penalty kick. Smith pointed at Lemos to take the kick and the junior took it from there.
“I tried looking at [the goalkeeper] and trying to psych her out and then I just buried it into the top corner because I knew she was short and I had to go high,” Lemos said.
The 2-1 Sierra Pacific lead was where the game stood at halftime. It was the only lead the Golden Bears needed.
From there, the defense — which gets overlooked quite too often — took over. After Granite Hills’ opening goal, they allowed two shots the rest of the game. Two.
“It’s that chemistry we have,” Martinez said. “My left defender Kaitlyn Thayer, my stopper Bryn Frauenheim and Amie Walker, on my right, we just have that chemistry.
“I know where they’re going to be at all times and they listen. They know exactly what to do. Their soccer IQ is amazing. I can trust them all and we just have that very good bond that a defense should have in order to win.”
Frauenheim didn’t allow any through balls, Walker put a stop to anything her way and quickly got the ball back up the line, Thayer bodied opponents and put throw-ins on a dime. Then there was Martinez, the anchor of the defense.
Martinez repeatedly called out orders to her back line, put her teammates in a position to succeed and made stop after stop in the center.
Rarely did the Grizzlies get the ball into the attacking third in the second half. A free kick in the 58th minute into the hands of Alepisco was the only shot on frame they would get.
The final whistle blew and the Golden Bears had it. Their very first East Sequoia League title.
“I just feel really, really happy,” Lemos said. “This was my first goal to get of the season. Next is Valley.”
Sierra Pacific finished with some eye-popping totals. The Golden Bears had 33 shots and 12 shots on goal in the game. That means one out of every three shots was on frame.
Granite Hills was limited to three shots and two shots on goal. The 80 minutes were dominated by the Golden Bears.
After the game, Martinez was honored as it was Senior Night. The four-year varsity player is the only senior on the team, so all eyes were on her.
Her coach and teammates spoke about the different things they loved about her, wished her luck in college and Martinez, with a Teddy bear, which was almost as tall as her, in one hand and flowers in the other, had a gleaming smile across her face as tears of pure joy made a home in her eyes.
“That touched my heart,” Martinez said about the ceremony. “Most of my team is all underclassmen and most of them just came here this year, but it got to me because I’m a really good people person. I make friends really well, so when they started talking and Smith started talking, it hit home.”
Smith probably put it best by saying that Martinez might be small, but she’s leaving behind big shoes to fill.
Martinez was the fulcrum of the back line and it showed not only on Wednesday, but throughout the season. With her as the leader on the field, the Golden Bears were the most dominant ESL defense this year.
The team allowed six goals in 10 league games and recorded five shutouts, with three in a row at one point.
“It’s trust. I trust my defense,” Martinez said about the team’s performance this season. “If you don’t have trust in the defense you’re going to fail … We executed on every single play. I trusted every single one of them to do their jobs.”
One has to step back and look at everything that has transpired over the last 11 weeks to admire the girls’ accomplishment.
Coming off a season where they went 4-9-3 and didn’t win a single game in league (0-7-3) to now being the crowned East Sequoia League champions is nothing short of amazing.
The turnaround season is not something you see very often and it’s incredible to think that after going winless in league, the Golden Bears only lost one game in the ESL this year.
“It was a turnaround of attitude, working together and with the sophomore group being a little bit older now, they know the level of play and the incoming freshman group really stepped up,” Smith said. “Young team, but they’re very mature on the field.”
The 2017-18 season will be one to remember for Sierra Pacific.
“I’m extremely proud especially with us having such a young team,” Lemos said. “I’m just proud of everyone on the team, that we were able to do this for us and for our school.”
The Golden Bears will wait for the playoff brackets, which should be released today. The Division V squad will find out who they’ll play, what time and where. More than likely, their first playoff game will be a home game.
It’s the team’s first playoff appearance since the 2015-16 season when they made it to the quarterfinals. Their last and only Central Section championship came in 2014 when they defeated McFarland 2-1 for the Division VI title.
“We want to make it to the final game, but one step at a time,” Smith said.