Sacred Heart suddenly in final

ANAHEIM — Off the bench and into the annals of Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy history.

Tologs senior forward Alyssa Conti did not begin overtime of Tuesday afternoon's CIF Southern Section Division I semifinal on the field, but she ended it there.

Propelled by the fortuitous right foot of Conti in the 83rd minute of an overtime nailbiter at Esperanza High, third-seeded Sacred Heart defeated No. 2 Esperanza, 1-0, to advance to the program's first-ever CIF Southern Section championship final.

"I am so excited right now I can't even put it into words," said Conti, who took a ball on the right wing from junior forward Breeana Koemans and went high with her shot for arguably the biggest goal in Sacred Heart soccer chronicle. "It was a great team effort, though, we all worked really hard on the field and it comes out with a good goal in the end, I guess.

"I was making sure this was not my last game for this team. I'm not ready to leave."

Conti, who started the game and had previously had the Tologs' best scoring chance in regulation, was on the bench when overtime began, but was quickly subbed in for Lauren Torres.

"She's one of the best finishers on the team," Koemans said. "I knew she was gonna make it."

And with her score, the Tologs (19-1-2) rushed the field and ushered their way into the Division I finals — the first girls' soccer team in area history to do so — as they will play No. 1 seed San Clemente either Friday or Saturday at a site to be determined. San Clemente defeated Santa Margarita, 2-2 (4-2).

"These kids are special. They came to play and they felt like they had something to prove today," Tologs co-Coach Frank Pace said. "Every kid who ever played for Sacred Heart would've liked to have been on the field today. It meant a lot to a lot of people."

It was the fourth straight game decided by a 1-0 score for Esperanza, the defending Southern Section and CIF Southern California Regional Championships Division I champion. Of course, this time around, the role was reversed for the Aztecs (22-3-5), who offered a swarming defense and a standout goalkeeper in Alyssa Giannetti, who made seven saves.

"I've always said great teams win 1-0 games," said Pace, who had previously offered up those words leading into the game about Esperanza. "A great team won a 1-0 game today."

Esperanza had its fair share of chances, particularly in the early going of the game and early in the second half, as well. But for the majority of the match, Sacred Heart controlled the action, but seemed to always come up a touch short of putting together a scoring sequence or would hold the ball too long before the Aztecs turned it over.

"I felt like we were that one step [off]," said Koemans, who had a goal and an assist in the Tologs' 3-1 quarterfinal victory over Tesoro on Thursday, which followed a second-round win over Aliso Niguel and a first-round triumph over Foothill. "Our touch was a little off."

Sacred Heart's best chance in the first half likely came on a Koemans corner that Giannetti skied to bat away with one hand, while holding off a crashing Jillian Jacobs with the other.

Thereafter, the best opportunity was had by Conti, who had a cross played to her from Katie Johnson just outside of the goal line. Giannetti was in the right place at the right time, as Conti's one-time shot bounced off her.

Just moments later, Esperanza had its best chance of the game come off the head of a Tolog, but saved by the hustle of Sacred Heart defender Natalie Zeenni. Zeenni, the reigning All-Area Player of the Year, slid along the goal line and touched away a possible own goal before crashing into the post.

"Zeenni saved my butt," said junior goalkeeper Lindsey Espe. "I almost kissed her."

Espe got the start in net after Samantha Dier injured her wrist against Tesoro. It was Espe's first start since being replaced by Dier earlier in the season and her first action since a thrilling performance in the second round against Aliso Niguel, in which she made three saves in penalty kicks to lead the Tologs to a 0-0 (4-3) win.

"I was very nervous. I wanted to show Frank I could do it," said Espe, who made just two saves, but played aggressively all day in goal and did her share in batting away corner kicks. "I wouldn't be anything without my defense. I'm so thankful for my defense."

The backline of Zeenni, Katelyn Almeida, Kayla Mills and Alexa Montgomery stood strong in the face of an Esperanza offense that had a size advantage and played physical. Though the Aztecs had their chances, it didn't often translate into shots, as they had just nine in all and only three over the final half and overtime.

"I knew they weren't gonna score on us," Almeida said.

But on a sequence that began with Sarah Teegarden playing the ball up to Johnson, who then played it back to Teegarden, Koemans would play it out to the wing for Conti, who scored against Foothill, converted a PK against Aliso Niguel, had an assist against Tesoro and sent the Sacred Heart faithful into a semifinal delirium with the first and only shot in overtime.

It was the second consecutive trip to the semifinals for the Tologs, who fell in penalty kicks against Beckman last season and then won in penalty kicks in the second round this year against Aliso Niguel, leading up to Tuesday's overtime triumph.

"It's a lot of pressure, but I think we handle it very well," Almeida said of playing in overtime situations. "I think we stay very composed. I just think this is our kind of game."

And now, the Tologs will play in their very first Southern Section championship game.

"It feels so good to finally achieve what we wanted," Almeida said. "Our goal is to win in the finals and I think we're on the right path."

Now ranked third in the nation by ESPN Rise, the Tologs will take on a San Clemente squad that is ranked second after beating an Esperanza team that was ranked eighth and a Tesoro squad that was previously ranked third.

"It's Division I, it's the best of the best," said Sacred Heart co-Coach Kathy Desmond.

And, though for many of the Tologs it might still be a surreal sensation, Sacred Heart has most assuredly proved itself to be among the best of the best.

"It doesn't even seem real," Espe said. "This is the first time in Sacred Heart history and it's DI and we're fighting to be the No. 1 team in the nation — it's ridiculous. It's just so much fun to be a part of."

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