Defense leads Tologs to title

MISSION VIEJO — Over the course of the season, the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy girls' soccer team has recorded 12 shutouts and certainly none more impressive or significant in program lore than Friday night's 1-0 blanking of top-seeded San Clemente in the CIF Southern Section Division I championship game at Mission Viejo High.

Perhaps it's hard to imagine the third-seeded Tologs having won the program's first-ever CIF Section title any other way, as much of the match saw Sacred Heart hustle and scramble to clear balls, make saves and keep the speedy and athletic Tritons in front of them, while San Clemente's own defense showed why it had breezed through the first three rounds of the playoffs without allowing a goal.

"We knew it was going to be a close game from the moment we knew we were playing San Clemente," defender and co-captain Natalie Zeenni said. "We knew we really, really, really had to be on our game, so we brought it.

"Matching-up-wise we were pretty even with them, they were just a really tough team."

Krista Meaglia's trickling 68th-minute goal on an exposed net may have put the Tologs ahead for good on the scoreboard, but defense won the championship for Sacred Heart (21-1-1).

"It feels amazing, we made a promise to not let anything go by us and nothing did," Zeenni said. "It's so surreal. I'm still in shock right now."

In the first half, defense was all that kept the Tologs afloat, as San Clemente (19-4-7) was the more aggressive and effective team, keeping control of possession and denying Sacred Heart any solid offensive opportunities.

And, before either team could even fully settle into the match, the Tologs suffered a huge loss to their defensive rotation when starting defender Kayla Mills suffered a quadriceps injury in the 13th minute. Mills would return to the field periodically as a forward, but her spot in the backfield was filled by midfielder Tera Trujillo, joining the backline of Zeenni, Alexa Montgomery and Katelyn Almeida.

"She's very important," Trujillo said of Mills. "The first 20 minutes, it was a little rocky, but then we fully got into motion."

Many of the individual defensive highlights came from Zeenni, who outdid her own stellar reputation for clutch defensive heroics in big games.

With less than two minutes elapsed in the game, Zeenni made a save, clearing a ball off the goal line that goalkeeper Lindsey Espe couldn't get to. She would repeat the feat later in the second half after also making a great slide tackle on Tritons forward Nikki Faris that broke up a run on the right wing late in the first half.

"That's my job," Zeenni said.

Sacred Heart's offense rebounded in the second half to make it a more back-and-forth contest and take some pressure off the defense, but there were still no major breakthroughs until Katie Johnson was able to head a ball through challenging Tritons goalkeeper Olivia Engelsman and up to Meaglia for the score.

"It was such a relief when she scored because I thought it was going to come down to overtime and PKs," Zeenni said.

Far from home safe yet, the Tologs had to make a tense stand at their goal, as the Tritons had a couple of up-close looks at the goal in the last two minutes.

"They almost scored the in the last minute," Trujillo said. "That was scary."

Espe, who finished with seven saves, had to corral a couple of balls dangerously close to the goal line before the sound of the final whistle sent the Tologs into a delirium.

"You've just got to keep your composure, which I think we did really well," Espe said. "It was tense. I know they wanted to score, their fans were crazy, but I think we overcame everything and did what we needed to do."

For a team accustomed to keeping teams from scoring, Friday's complete effort was certainly extraordinary, leaving the Tologs with an appreciation for their opponent, but also a renewed confidence in their defense.

"It was freaking hard," Trujillo said of keeping San Clemente off the scoreboard. "[Tritons midfielder Frannie Coxe] is an amazing player, I give all props to [San Clemente], but we're better."

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