SAN CLEMENTE — The San Clemente High girls' soccer team planned to relentlessly attack Corona del Mar.
The Sea Kings planned to counterattack and possibly score on a set piece.
Both plans nearly worked in Thursday afternoon's CIF Southern Section Division I quarterfinal match at San Clemente High. Only the top-seeded Tritons move on.
San Clemente sophomore Danielle Mellem scored midway through the second half and the hosts held on to win, 1-0, ending Corona del Mar's season in the quarterfinals for the third straight year. The last two years were in Division II.
Corona del Mar (15-4-5) knew CIF would be challenging, moving up a division. San Clemente (18-2-7) has been a powerhouse in Division I, winning CIF five times in the last nine years. The Tritons are ranked No. 3 in the state by ESPN Rise; CdM is No. 12.
"Sea Kings are wanna-be Tritons" read a sign at the San Clemente stadium. But the proud Sea Kings and their defense led by Wake Forest-bound senior keeper Lindsey Luke didn't give an inch for much of the game.
Luke made 10 saves and a defense led by seniors Kaylee O'Connor and Hannah Rome, as well as juniors Amanda Stephenson and Sydney Raguse and sophomore Alana Hunter, fended off attack after attack.
"I gave them a quote at the beginning of the playoffs, and it basically just talked about 'no regrets,' " CdM Coach Bryan Middleton said. "Play your game all the way through, play to the game plan and give it 100%. Leave nothing on the field, and you'll have no regrets.
"I told them at the end of the game, 'We have no regrets.' We played to our game plan, we played 100%, and the girls put the work in. Unfortunately, San Clemente earned a goal throughout the run of play. But we left it all on the field."
Middleton also put junior midfielder/forward Ally Brahs on San Clemente's playmaker, Yale-bound senior midfielder Frannie Coxe. Coxe did most of her damage taking the Tritons' six corner kicks, but every one the Sea Kings cleared away. In the second half, junior Brittany Brown got her head on the ball a couple of times to get it out of danger.
But San Clemente Coach Stacey Finnerty saw something.
"We were playing our typical style," Finnerty said. "A lot of attack, a lot of shots from around the pitch. Unfortunately, with Lindsey Luke and their defense packed in, it was a really tough thing for our set pieces. We had to be more patient. Over time, I think that's what we've been doing — wearing teams down — and that worked today. I was confident that we would pull something out."
Finnerty put in some fresh legs when she inserted Mellem in the 58th minute. It paid off six minutes later when Mellem took the cross from the right from University of Florida-bound senior Tessa Andujar and scored, just off the bottom of the crossbar. Andujar, a member of the Newport Beach-based Slammers Futbol Club, played at CdM as a freshman and sophomore.
"In most of our late games where we're wearing teams down, [Mellem] will come in and she's got great finesse, great touches," Finnerty said. "She's super-composed on the ball, and it paid off right in front of the net."
CdM had a chance in the 69th minute, but San Clemente goalie Sheridan Hapsic covered up after Maddie O'Connor's shot before a hard-charging Brahs could get there. The last good opportunity was on Annie Alvarado's blast from 35 yards out with six minutes left, off a San Clemente handball, but it went just over the cage.
Luke had kept the game scoreless in the 35th minute when she leaped to deflect Coxe's straightaway shot over the net. Three minutes later, CdM nearly took the lead just before halftime on its best scoring chance.
Raguse's free kick from near the home sideline went to the foot of Alvarado in the box. Her shot was headed into the right corner of the net before Hapsic dove to her left and got a hand on it.
CdM played inspired defense in Tuesday's second round against Los Alamitos and stunned the Griffins when Brahs scored first. This time the goal wasn't there, and the Tritons eventually capitalized. They move on to play Santa Margarita in Tuesday's semifinals and are one match away from their fourth straight Division I final appearance.
"They kept pushing up against us," said Kaylee O'Connor, a four-year varsity starter at sweeper. "We were just hoping for an opportunity up top, but it just didn't come. But we played really good defense today, I thought.
"All the girls get along really well in the back. We're all there for each other, and that's why the defense is so strong. And of course, Lindsey. She's incredible. She's easily one of the best 'keepers in the nation."
Corona del Mar ended the year allowing just 13 goals in its 24 games.
Middleton said this team was the most bonded he's had in nine years at CdM. They had a lot to be proud of after making the run in CIF and capturing the program's second league title in three years, and first outright crown in Middleton's tenure.
He said one of the final things he told his team postgame was to keep the momentum going into next year.
"I told them to keep the lines of communication open, even with the girls who have graduated," Middleton said. "They will always be there for [the remaining girls] and give them guidance. Now, with this Facebook thing, these girls communicate 24-7. Our team bonding this year has been better than it's ever been. It's been phenomenal."