HANFORD — It’s been three years in the making for Hanford coach DelRay Dias and his squad, but they’re finally in the Valley finals.
The Bullpups took down Mission Oak in the CIF Central Section Division III semifinals and earned themselves a birth in the finals for the first time since 1993.
The 1993 season was also the last time the Bullpups were West Yosemite League champions and they finished as the runner-up in the Valley finals.
The 25-year drought was ended by Hanford forward Sheyenne Hodge's lone goal in the 1-0 match on Tuesday and the defense put together its 13th shutout of the season to send home the defending Division III champions.
“It’s phenomenal,” Dias said. “The majority of this team is all juniors so they came in with a chip on their shoulder their freshman year when I came in as a coach and I said, ‘Hey, we’re going to win.’”
And Dias has delivered on his promise. Not only has the third-year coach compiled a 36-17-8 record — a .656 winning percentage — but he’s substantially improved his record every year. From six wins his first year, to 12 and now 18 (and counting), the coach has built up the program to new heights.
There’s only one thing left to do and that’s win the Division III championship.
“I told the girls at practice [on Monday] we’re building a cake and it’s a three-tiered cake,” Dias said. “Now we ice it tonight and now we start with a cherry on top on Friday and then we finish the cake.”
After their thrilling victory, there were hugs, tears, but words were a bit harder to come by.
“I’m just speechless,” Hanford goalkeeper Hanna Murrieta said. “We’ve worked so hard for it for the last three years, so it’s finally good to say that we’re going to Valley.”
For the junior goalkeeper, there was also a bit of personal satisfaction having downed Mission Oak since she lost to them in the playoffs her freshman year and then a tournament her sophomore year.
“It’s amazing to say we beat them finally and they didn’t score on me,” Murrieta said.
The 2-seed Bullpups (18-2-4, 9-2-1 WYL) had been mounting attacks throughout the first 30 minutes of the game and narrowly missed an open net on the far post in the 13th minute.
Mission Oak (19-6, 8-2 EYL) finally broke down in the 31st when Cianna Rodriguez crossed a ball from just inside the box to forward Sheyenne Hodge who got her left foot on the ball and into the corner for the score.
“Honestly, I didn’t know I was in front of the goal, but the ball came fast, I took my chances, it went in,” Hodge said. “I’m just very thankful.”
With the one-goal lead at halftime, Hanford was in good position. The team had not lost at home all season long (9-0-1), but that didn’t mean Mission Oak was going to give in.
The 3-seed Hawks came out of the half looking to shoot. The first five minutes resulted in a shot, a shot on goal and a corner kick. But the Bullpups defense stayed strong, especially Murrieta in net who came up with some timely saves and controlled her box. She had nine saves on the night with six coming after halftime.
“I just told myself, ‘This is another game,’” Murrieta said. “I just stay calm and I know what to do. I just tell myself that I know I can do it and just to stay calm.”
Mission Oak pressured in the final minutes with a dangerous cross in the 80th minute, but there was nobody on the far post to put the shot away. The final whistle blew and the Hanford sideline let out a collective cheer.
Hodge’s goal was her team-leading 20th of the year and fourth goal of the playoffs — all of Hanford’s scoring. The junior is doing all of this after having torn her ACL last year.
“All I did every single day was workout to get back on this field,” Hodge said. “I worked out three times a day with Jim Schroder. He definitely helped me come back. I believe I deserve this with so much work I’ve put in.”
Hanford finished with 14 shots, seven shots on goal and four corner kicks, while Mission Oak had 12 shots nine shots on goal and three corner kicks.
The Bullpups will face the No. 1 seed Independence (17-3-1, 10-0 SYL) on Friday at 6 p.m. in the championship game. The Falcons defeated 4-seed Reedley in the semifinals 1-0.
For Dias, this will be his fourth championship appearance. He made three appearances with Sierra Pacific and won the Division VI championship in 2014.
“To be the champion you got to knock the champion … basically we’ve cut the head off the dragon,” Dias said. “Now it’s our turn to go and become the dragon.”