By Grant Gordon, firstname.lastname@example.org
10:19 PM PST, February 21, 2012
LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — For more than 65 minutes of game time, St. Francis High's soccer team was holding a winning ticket for a trip to the CIF Southern Section Division I quarterfinals.
But then a familiar storyline reared its ugly head, as the Golden Knights saw a late lead, along with their ticket to the next round, slip away on a late regulation goal before an overtime tally by visiting Ventura that was as controversial as it was heartbreaking brought St. Francis' season to a halt with a 2-1 sudden-death loss on Friday afternoon at Friedman Field.
"We had a chance to put it away and it just escaped," said St. Francis Coach Glen Appels.
In the 86th minute, Ventura's Kevin De Los Santos flicked in the game-winner off a deep throw-in. The shot passed over St. Francis junior goalie Luca Coppola, but didn't get past junior defender Luke Hatanaka, who deftly kicked the airborne attempt away. Though it appeared briefly that the side official ruled the entire ball did not go past the goalline, a brief officials' conference followed before a large celebration by Ventura as it was signaled a goal by the officials.
"[The sideline official] had his flag down and I thought he was saying no goal," Appels said. "That's a tough call to make in sudden death and you've gotta be pretty sure the whole ball went over."
Said Ventura Coach Todd Tackett: "My guys — I couldn't see it, of course — said it did go in."
And, of course, Appels said his Golden Knights said just the opposite, though he admitted they were obviously looking at it through "brown and gold glasses."
But the previous 85 minutes of play for the brown and gold left plenty to ponder, as well.
Among a string of three stellar scoring chances inside the game's first seven minutes, senior midfielder Eric Bocanegra made a dazzling run up the far sideline before sending a diagonal pass into the center of the field for a streaking Matt Laterza and the senior forward swiftly booted in a low shot for a 1-0 lead less than five minutes into the match.
However, a St. Francis squad that had seen too many wins turn into ties and ties into losses after allowing late-game scores during a third-place Mission League run would see the pattern continue in the playoffs when Erick Sandoval headed in a free kick with 7:30 remaining on the clock to lock the game at 1.
Appels, though, said it was hardly a case of the same story, rather the tale of a Golden Knights team that turned into the walking wounded.
"Today was a little different," Appels said. "We were just running out of guys."
It was also a far different story for Ventura (22-0-6), which remained unbeaten and advanced to the quarterfinals a season after St. Francis eliminated it in the second round.
"This whole week of practice, we had the word redemption written on the board," Tackett said.
St. Francis concluded its season at 8-9-8, as Coppola and a Thomas Banks-led backline made the Laterza score hold up for as long as possible, with injuries, too many set-piece chances by Ventura from close range and missed golden chances by the Golden Knights all playing significant roles in the final outcome.
"This is not your normal 8-8-8 team. Glen always does a great job putting out a team that will fight," Tackett said. "I felt they actually had the game the first 65 minutes."
Shortly after a helicopter flew over the field before the game's start with, "Let's go Golden Knights," bellowing down from the skies, the Golden Knights indeed went.
It began when senior midfielder Derek Bell had a spot-on throw-in that Laterza headed just right of the net only two minutes in. Three minutes later, Laterza scored and not long after, Bocanegra unleashed a great shot that was saved by the Ventura keeper.
"We took it to them pretty good for 15, 20 minutes," Appels said. "Even at the half, we were feeling pretty good. But we just started to wear down."
Ventura began to turn things around and assert itself offensively, using a more physical approach and a lofty height advantage to make a slew of corner kicks, deep throw-ins and free kicks very dangerous. But Coppola was up to the task, intercepting six throws onto frame during the game and tallying 12 saves, including three stupendous grabs in the first half in which he had to leap up to either catch or knock away headers on frame.
"He was doing incredible," said Tackett, whose team won the Channel League. "I thought they defended really well today."
It was quite the opposite from St. Francis' 4-3 opening-round win on Thursday against Upland, but the result wasn't as fortunate. Nevertheless, Banks and Co. were able to hold a Ventura team that had scored 96 goals in its previous 27 matches off the scoreboard for much of regulation.
But the Golden Knights still played with fire for too long, allowing too many set-piece chances deep in their defensive third.
"When you have a team that's that good and that strong in the air, you can't keep giving them free kicks and corner kicks," Appels said.
But the task became a lot more arduous as St. Francis injuries took their toll, the most damaging coming as Bocanegra was injured late in the first half, pulling his hamstring and never returning. On top of that, Laterza and senior midfielder Austin Frank have both been nursing leg injuries for some time and missed valuable minutes, as did junior midfielder Reed Izumi.
Still, the Golden Knights had chances to put the game away in the second half.
In the first half, Frank executed a beautiful bicycle kick from the far wing that went just off frame.
In the second half, Frank pushed a pass forward to senior forward Billy McCreary who had a two-on-one with Laterza to his right being marked closely. As McCreary moved onto goal, the defender fell to the ground and Laterza was whistled for a puzzling foul. Later, Frank found himself with an even better opportunity when a Ventura defender overran a ball and allowed Frank into a one-on-one with the goalie. With Frank setting up for a shot, he hit his toe on the field, getting off a subpar attempt that was smothered by the keeper.
Coppola would make another pair of dazzling saves in the second half before the equalizer and, in overtime, he challenged a shot, leaving an exposed net before freshman defender Billy Abdallah made a kick save in front of the open frame. But, at least in the eyes of the officials, the Golden Knights came up one save too short.