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Costa Mesa boys’ soccer finds late magic for win in playoff opener

Costa Mesa's Gabriel Garcia, seen on Dec. 15 against Estancia, is a team captain for the Mustangs.
Costa Mesa beat Walnut to open the CIF Southern Section Division 6 boys’ soccer playoffs on Wednesday at home. Above, Gabriel Garcia (13), seen on Dec. 15 against Estancia, is a team captain for the Mustangs.
(James Carbone)
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Costa Mesa’s magical boys’ soccer campaign grows more extraordinary with each game, never more so than in Wednesday’s 2-1 triumph over Walnut, the Mustangs’ first CIF Southern Section playoff victory in 13 years.

Challenged by the visitors’ unorthodox midfield alignment, outplayed most of the way — and virtually the entire second half — seventh-ranked Costa Mesa (11-4-3) pushed through to the second round behind goalkeeper Kevin Perez Henriquez’s late heroics and Jay Parra’s perfect finish to a fortuitous sequence deep into stoppage time.

It sends the Mustangs, unbeaten in 14 games since an 0-4 start to the season, out to the desert Friday to take on No. 10 Cathedral City (13-5-1), which beat La Puente 3-0 on the road. Win there, and it’s an unranked quarterfinal foe next week, after No. 2 seed Paloma Valley was upset by Hacienda Heights Wilson.

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“What a win,” gushed Costa Mesa coach Santiago Guzman, who guided the Mustangs to their first postseason since 2018 and first Orange Coast League title in 22 years. “Those guys never give up, and that’s what I like about them.

“To be honest, [Walnut] were the better team in the second half, and I honestly thought we were going into OT.”

Overtime would have been a gift. Sharl Gonzalez was set to send Walnut (10-10-2) ahead with a minute or so to go but for Perez Henriquez’s astonishing foot save, one of the junior goalkeeper’s eight stops. Half a minute later, Perez Henriquez’s long ball began the winning sequence.

He hit straight up the middle, not his intention, and it took an optimal bounce. Nathen Rocha, who had nodded Costa Mesa ahead from Miguel Reyes’ 11th-minute corner kick — Walnut answered 15 minutes later through MLS Next veteran Patrick Castro, also on a corner kick — headed it to the left for Parra.

The junior forward took it on the bounce, arcing a 30-yard shot well over goalkeeper Frank Tang — far off his line with few defenders nearby — that nestled into the netting. Parra didn’t believe it until he saw it.

“I thought it was going to go over or something,” he said. “[Seeing it in the goal] didn’t feel real. ... I’ve been sick these last couple days and this is my first touches on the ball in [about] a week.”

Perez Henriquez said he meant to place the ball on the right flank, “but thank God I shanked it.”

The game was in its 95th minute — 15 minutes of stoppage — after a stadium-lights failure with about five minutes to go. That coincided with a potentially season-ending ankle injury to sophomore holding midfielder Roman Serpas, perhaps the Mustangs’ most important player. He was treated on the field, with cellphone flashlights, for more than a dozen minutes before leaving on an electric cart.

Serpas’ quick feet, uncommon vision and ability to modulate play was crucial in cutting off Walnut attacks and fostering a direct offensive approach to bypass midfield.

“Roman is definitely a key player, the way we like to play,” Guzman said. “This little guy, he wanted it so bad.”

Serpas, along with senior attacking midfielder Gabriel Garcia, were pivotal as Costa Mesa sought to solve Walnut’s unorthodox, six-midfielder formation, with a line of four led by Castro and dynamic playmaker Christian Garcia above two holds. Guzman responded with a 3-2-3-2 formation, but the visitors, also the Mustangs, used its numerical advantage in the middle to move the ball crisply and leave little space for Costa Mesa to exploit. Aidan Markert superbly anchored a three-man back line that permitted Walnut few good opportunities until the final minutes.

Costa Mesa had four good chances in the first half, with Garcia twice and Reyes forcing leaping saves from Tang.

Perez Henriquez was deft in handling everything following Castro’s strike from a tight angle off the rebound of his own shot. His biggest moment before the finish occurred just before the blackout, making back-to-back sharp saves on Oscar Feria and Castro, then watching Castro fire wide from the second rebound.

“I surprised myself,” said Perez Henriquez, who is unbeaten in 10 games since returning from a fifth-metatarsal injury just after New Year’s. “Thank God for those saves. I’m so glad I read it right.”

Said Guzman: “He saved the game. He’s the MVP of the game. He had three great saves, especially that last one, and that’s what gave us life.”

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