BAKERSFIELD — After 25 years, the Bullpups played in another Valley final, but just like the first time, they finished as runner-up. Hanford suffered only its third defeat of the season as they lost 2-0 to Independence in the CIF Central Section Division III championship on Friday.
“Me, as a coach, I couldn’t be any prouder of all these young ladies that I have on my squad,” Hanford coach DelRay Dias said. “They’re like my daughters. They all know it.”
Dias told the girls that their tears should be from joy because of what they had accomplished this season, including 18 wins, a trip to the Valley finals and finishing second in the West Yosemite League.
“We didn’t get the ending that we wanted, but we definitely did create something with this team, and I wish the best of luck for the next season for them,” Hanford defender and captain Kassandra Ybarra said.
Ybarra, a senior, said she’ll miss, “the way that we’ve come together to be a family. These girls have been through so much together — a lot of smiles, a lot of tears, a lot of laughter.”
Ybarra and defender Mikaela Patino — the team’s only two seniors — were both staples on the defensive side of the ball.
“Our team did great all season long,” Patino said with tears in her eyes. “We never gave up. We played our hardest until the whistle blew.”
And there they were, down two goals in the final minutes and still mounting an attack. It was indicative of who the 2-seed Bullpups were this year.
Hanford forwards Sheyenne Hodge and Madison Stewart were still making runs in the box trying to put one in the net to provide some momentum. Baylee Dias was giving through balls, Isabella Schroder was putting the ball in the box and the rest of the team was doing everything they could to get the ball into the goal.
Hodge had a shot in front of the goal in the 60th minute, but Independence goalkeeper Katelyn Gonzalez came out to challenge and blocked it with her chest. It was one of the two best chances the Bullpups had on Friday.
Their other came in the first half in the 21st minute. Gonzalez came out of her goal on a cross and went to the ground. With the open net, Hodge’s shot was saved by a defender heading the ball out and then Skyler Martinez’s kick went just wide.
“Our heads were all over the place,” Ybarra said. “I feel like we made the big game bigger than it really was and that got to our heads and we weren’t playing our game, but we didn’t give up.”
Those same opportunities, Independence — the No. 1 seed — buried. In the 12th minute, Hanford goalkeeper Hanna Murrieta blocked the initial shot, but with no one marking on the far post, Cielo Mazantini trailed in and scored on the open net.
Independence forward Mia Ontiveros got a through ball in the 50th minute and put the shot over a sliding Murrieta, who finished with seven saves, for the second goal. Those two plays were the difference in the game.
“We had opportunities to score [and] we didn’t capitalize,” Dias said. “It’s just one of those nights that tonight we had our opportunities and we just didn’t capitalize on them and other than that there was no real difference to the game tonight.”
Independence led in shots (16-11) and shots on goal (10-7), but the game was pretty even when it came to scoring chances. But like Dias said, they just weren’t able to score when they had the chance.
Many of the girls broke down in understandable tears after the referee called the game, but the solemn silence was broken by DelRay Dias imploring the girls to keep their heads up.
“It’s 25 years since they’ve been here,” Dias said. “A lot of these girls, this is their first long playoff run. They’ll take that experience and I think they’ll learn from it. They’ll rebound, come back next year and we’ll have even a stronger year.”
The Bullpups finish the season 18-3-4 overall and 9-2-1 in league. Their tough defense limited opponents to 0.92 goals in league and they allowed a total of 18 goals in the season. The pinnacle was clearly reaching the finals, which they hadn’t seen in a quarter of a century.
“I wouldn’t regret playing with this team,” Patino said. “It’s always going to be a season to remember.”
Dias, he said he’s “excited” for next year and would start tomorrow if he could. He told the girls that the loss should burn in them and they should use it as a driving force for next year.
Most of the roster will be intact for the 2018-19 season, which immediately makes the Bullpups a contender for another deep playoff run.
“Once we start hitting preseason next year in September and we start doing conditioning, these girls are going to be ready,” Dias said. “They know what it’s like. They have that feeling of a loss.”