HANFORD — In their first playoff match since their loss in the Division III championship last season, Sierra Pacific seemed poised to make another run at the title game.
The Golden Bears trailed after the first quarter and didn’t grab their first lead of the match until the third quarter, but there was no panic as they came out on top 8-6 over San Joaquin Memorial in the CIF Central Section Division III quarterfinals.
Coming off a first-round bye, the 3-seed and East Sequoia League champion Golden Bears (19-10, 8-0 ESL) were a bit shaky and slow to get going on offense at the Hanford West pool.
“It had been a little bit more than a week since our last game, so any time you have a long break it just ends up making it so much harder for them to come out and perform because they get out of that groove,” Sierra Pacific coach Jessica Bean said. “Coming in they played a little flat, they looked a little tired and they were making bad passes, things that they knew they shouldn’t be doing.”
The 6-seed Panthers, also coming off a bye, looked to take advantage by taking the lead first. But 27 seconds later Hailey McGaha scored from three meters to tie the match. San Joaquin Memorial added another one to lead 2-1 after the first quarter.
“We’ve been losing to worse in the first quarter and we’ve come back from that,” Sierra Pacific’s Victoria Blanchard said. “We weren’t really too shaken up. We didn’t let it faze us.”
Vanessa Lloyd started the second quarter with a goal from just inside the half distance line. It was her first goal in four matches and a result of San Joaquin Memorial’s defense.
The Panthers were constantly crunching the middle of the pool along with sloughing and then doubling in the hole, trying to limit McGaha’s scoring opportunities, which allowed Sierra Pacific to shoot from the outside.
Rylee Lord’s first of three goals in the match came after swimming around a defender and finishing a one-on-one shot. Trailing again, Blanchard — who leads the team with 92 goals — converted a 6-on-5 opportunity from approximately five meters to make it a 4-4 match at halftime.
All four goals came from four different players in the first half.
“All six girls that play can shoot the ball at any time,” Bean said. “We are very fortunate to have all of them that can shoot that good from anywhere in the pool. It’s something that we work on in practice a lot, so I have confidence in all of them at any time if they’re given the ball.”
Isabella Tomas’ became the fifth different player to score a goal when her man-up goal with 5:03 left in the third quarter gave the Golden Bears their first lead of the match.
“It’s always part of our game plan,” Lord said about spreading the ball to different shooters. “You can’t have a weak link. Everyone has to do their share, everyone has to play their game.”
The Panthers scored on their own man-up opportunity for the sixth tie of the match. But it was as close as they’d come the rest of the way.
Lord’s goal with 1:34 left in the third quarter gave the Golden Bears the lead for good. After a blocked shot, Lord had a putback right in front of the net.
Heading into the fourth quarter with a one-goal lead, Bean drew on past experience. She reminded the team of a match against Reedley on Oct. 20 in the Madera Tournament. They won 7-6 utilizing smart-decision making, clock management and on-target passes.
“They’ve been battle tested a couple times with some close games and we’ve actually done really well in them,” Bean said. “We’re pretty resilient.”
Lord scored on a pump fake to get the goalkeeper out of position and then gently lobbed it into the corner for the two-goal lead.
With 5:21 left in the match, the defense, which allowed an average of three goals per match during league play, pitched a shutout in the fourth, including allowing only two goals in the second half.
Sierra Pacific will have another home match in the semifinals after 7-seed Lemoore (9-18, 4-6 WYL) upset the No. 2 seed on Friday. The game will take place on Wednesday at the Hanford West pool with a time still to be determined.