MISSION VIEJO — With just 10 seconds separating Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy’s soccer team from realizing its ultimate goal, junior goalie Lindsey Espe secured the ultimate of victories.
With little more than 11 minutes remaining, sophomore Krista Meaglia made it all possible.
Meaglia booted in a low shot in the 68th minute to propel Sacred Heart to a 1-0 victory over top-seeded San Clemente on Friday night to win the program’s first-ever CIF Southern Section Division I championship at Mission Viejo High.
“I don’t think words can describe it,” said Meaglia of her feeling after winning the championship on a goal that came to be after Jillian Jacobs played a high ball up from midfield to forward Katie Johnson, who then headed a ball over a double-team to Meaglia. “I just saw the opportunity, I just shot it.”
A season after falling in the Division II semifinals, the third-seeded Tologs (21-1-1), representing a school with just 400 students, ran a gauntlet of five teams from Orange Country, including defending champion and second-seeded Esperanza in the semifinals, before upending San Clemente (19-8-1), the second-ranked team in the nation, according to ESPN Rise.
“Amazing,” Johnson said. “This is one of the best days ever.”
It was all the more amazing considering the Tritons controlled the first half, dictating play from start to finish before the Tologs rebounded in the final 40 minutes in what would play out as a back-and-forth half.
“They were coming off the field and they were saying we got this,” said Sacred Heart co-Coach Kathy Desmond of what changed at halftime. “They said they had it.”
Sacred Heart, which is ranked third in the country by ESPN Rise, found itself taking home the winner’s plaque more so for its defensive heroics than its offense, though.
“They had a strong defense and a great goalie that kept our attack and special pieces from finishing,” said San Clemente Coach Stacey Finnerty, whose team was playing in its fourth straight championship game. “We had a great couple chances that didn’t go our way.”
The backline of Natalie Zeenni, Alexa Montgomery, Katelyn Almeida and Tera Trujillo held strong in the face of arguably its toughest opponent to date.
“There was no way we were leaving with anything but a win,” said Zeenni, the reigning All-Area Player of the Year who made two spectacular plays in which she saved San Clemente shots on the backline. “I made a point that nothing was gonna get by me.”
The shutout performance – the third of the postseason for the Tologs — was all the more impressive considering normal starter Kayla Mills injured her quad during pregame and only played sparingly at the onset of the game and briefly at the beginning of the second half at forward.
Trujillo was put on the backline for the remainder of the match.
“I knew my defense had it,” said Espe, who closed out a dramatic playoff run with seven saves, none bigger than the last one with 10 seconds remaining that came off a header flick. “They worked their butts off.”
Sacred Heart came out energized and physical from the start, but San Clemente was game and then some, controlling possession and pushing the pace most of the first half.
San Clemente’s first golden opportunity was stopped by Zeenni, a play she would make again in the second half and had made just three days earlier in the semifinals against Esperanza.
“I knew it was gonna be a really tough game from the beginning,” Zeenni said. “I knew I was gonna have to bring it.”
Espe made three saves in the half, including batting away a Sydney Fuertes shot that then hit off the crossbar.
“It was crazy,” said Espe of the first half. “But we held them and we won.”
Sacred Heart’s first shot — in a game in which it was outshot, 12-8 — didn’t come until 19 minutes had elapsed when Johnson put a ball wide right.
“You know, they’re good,” said Tologs co-Coach Frank Pace of the Tritons. “They’re quite good.”
Offensively, though, Johnson led a resurgent Tologs offense in the second half.
“Katie played one of her better games of the season and it was largely because she worked her tail off,” Pace said.
Johnson took the Tologs’ first shot on goal not far into the second half as the Tologs settled into their game.
“It really took us a while to adjust to the speed of play with Kayla out,” Pace said.
But they did, culminating with Meaglia’s game-winning shot.
“We love Krista,” Desmond said. “Krista’s an amazing player.”
With the win, Sacred Heart assures itself of being able to defend its CIF Southern California Divisions III Regional Championships title next week, as it will likely receive the top seed.
But while a repeat bid remains for next week, on Friday, the Tologs rejoiced in the fact that they won the first Southern Section title in their program’s history and became the first girls’ soccer team to win a Division I crown in area chronicle.
Said Zeenni after the victory: “I’m still in shock.”