The Sage Hill boys' soccer team came within about 90 seconds of an unbeaten regular season and a share of the Academy League championship Thursday.
But first-year coach Gabriel Lucatero said following the Lightning's heartbreaking 1-0 loss to visiting St. Margaret's that his team may have taken away a memento that will serve them even better moving forward.
"It does sting and I told them I was just as bothered by the loss as they were," Lucatero said after his team gave up the game-winning goal early in the 79th minute of the battle between teams that both entered the regular-season-ending showdown 10-0-1 in league play. "But I do want them to remember the feeling [of losing] moving forward. Let's not go through the same type of situation where we have those feelings at the end of a match."
The hard feelings were evident among Sage players, many of whom dropped to the turf and lay prone for minutes following the final whistle. Some on the Lightning roster were sobbing during the postgame team huddle, in which Lucatero offered praise, consolation and the aforementioned motivation about the upcoming CIF Southern Section Division 6 playoffs that begin next week.
Sage Hill (14-1-2, 10-1-1), ranked tied for No. 10 in Division 6, had hoped that an unbeaten season and the outright league title would at least create a guaranteed home match to open the playoffs. Now, they will await a 50-50 chance of getting a home game, or boarding a bus in a division known for the vast Southern California expanse it covers.
Instead, the Tartans (16-4-4, 11-0-1), who are unbeaten in league at least the last two seasons and have won the league crown at least the last three years, will play host to their initial section playoff encounter. For the No. 5-ranked team in CIF Division 6, the win may also lead to a top-four seeding for the San Juan Capistrano-based school.
"These games are always fun and its a big rivalry for us," said St. Margaret's sophomore Dane Lind, who scored the lone goal on a flurry in front with the help of an assist by Freddy Hudoff.
Lind was a constant in the scoring sequence that began after a Sage Hill foul produced a free kick 24 yards directly in front of the goal.
Lind's initial blast deflected back toward him after appearing to strike the Sage Hill defensive wall blocking the path to the goal. Lind again directed a shot on goal, but Lightning senior goalkeeper Adam Ellingson blocked it with his body. The rebound, however, caromed out front and Hudoff directed it back toward the goal. Lind, who had drifted slightly closer to the goal in the center of the flurry, redirected the ball past Lind, who had no chance to react.
"The third time was the charm," said Lind, who helped the visitors produce a 20-7 advantage in shots, including an 11-1 bulge in the final 21 minutes.
The Tartans' late dominance was a departure from the evenly matched battle that marked the first 59 minutes.
"Our kids played their hearts out," said Lucatero, who noted that his team's inability to stick with the game plan helped it lose control of the flow late in the game.
"To be quite honest about it, I think we sort of started playing to [the Tartans] strength," Lucatero said of his team's late lapse. "We started playing balls in the air and, them being taller, they were going to win 90% of those. We might have been looking at the time and thinking we needed to put one in the back of the net, so we were trying to get the ball upfield as fast as possible, just trying to create an opportunity."
The Lightning, led by the dazzling play of Ellingson, whose 11 saves included point-blank reactions, diving deflections, leaping punch-outs and lunging grabs, did have some quality scoring chances of their own.
Nikolai Sadeghi directed a cross from fellow junior Milad Rohani just wide of an inviting space on the right side of the cage in the 25th minute and senior Kavi Sakraney just missed wide while attempting to finish a combination from Gordon Strelow to Jandhyala late in the opening half.
Sakraney appeared to have beaten St. Margaret's keeper Angel Ceballos in the 57th minute, directing a shot toward the right corner of the net from about 25 yards in front. But Ceballos retreated and dived in time to get a hand on the ball and deflect it wide of the goal post.
Junior Anthony Gil and senior Danny Lee were also catalysts for the Lightning, for whom senior Will Burns anchored the defense at center back.
"[Ellingson] had a great game," Lind said of the Sage keeper. "We finally put it past him. After enough opportunities, you have to score one."
Lucatero also praised his senior goalkeeper, whose play all season, he said, has been a big key to the Lightning's success.
Playoff pairings are announced Monday.