ALISO VIEJO — When last the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy soccer team found itself in penalty kicks, the Tologs' CIF Southern Section playoff run came to a heartbreaking conclusion.
But on a cool Tuesday evening in Orange County, Lindsey Espe was the only Tologs player wiping away any tears. And they were most assuredly tears of joy.
Espe went from a spectator on the bench to an unlikely hero swarmed by euphoric teammates on the field, as she turned in one of the greatest clutch performances in Sacred Heart soccer lore, stopping three penalty kicks in a 0-0 (4-3) triumph for the Tologs over host Aliso Niguel in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs.
"I honestly don't even know what to say, that was an incredible feeling," said Espe, who stopped Ashley McCutcheon's penalty kick attempt shortly after Tologs junior Tera Trujillo had converted her attempt to clinch a quarterfinal berth.
Sacred Heart (18-1-1), which advanced to the Division II semifinals last year before falling in penalty kicks on the road against Beckman, will now play on the road once more against Tesoro, a 4-0 winner over Newport Harbor. Against Beckman, the Tologs missed two PK attempts, as well. Thus, the only difference was the presence and play of Espe.
Espe, who lost her starting job late in the season after the Tologs' 4-3 Mission League loss to Harvard-Westlake, admitted it hasn't been the easiest season since then, making Wednesday's triumph all the more spectacular.
It began as the minutes ticked away in the second half of overtime. Espe was running in place on the sideline to keep warm as the temperature and night fell before Tologs co-Coach Frank Pace told her to start stretching and get ready should the game go to penalty kicks.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, here's my chance,'" she said. "I was so thankful he gave me the opportunity."
And so too were the Tologs.
"What can you say about Lindsey?" co-Coach Kathy Desmond said. "She came through."
With Sacred Heart's Jillian Jacobs having hit the crossbar on her team's first PK attempt, Espe took the momentum right back when she stopped a low shot to her left on the first attempt by Aliso Niguel (11-8-4).
Lauren Torres then booted in a score and Aliso answered before controversy struck. Sacred Heart's Breeana Koemans had her attempt stopped, but the officials immediately waved it off, stating that Wolverines goalie Sammy Jo Prud'homme had moved forward before the kick. Koemans made her second attempt a good one and put Sacred Heart up, 2-1.
While Prud'homme had moved forward too early, the Wolverines junior was largely silent and stoic. Espe, however, paced back and forth before Aliso Niguel's attempts and waved her arms up and down. And that was only after she made sure to present the ball to the opposing players before each kick.
"They're my favorite things to take cause there's no pressure," said Espe of penalty kicks. "It's their job to make it.
"My favorite thing to do is freak them out and hand them the ball."
Espe followed Koemans' goal with her second stop and Alyssa Conti then pushed the PK lead to 3-1 when she converted. As the fifth shooter, with her team up 3-2, Katie Johnson had a chance to clinch the victory, but Prud'homme made a phenomenal save herself to send the session to a sixth kicker.
In stepped Trujillo, who calmly converted her shot and set the stage for Espe's final save.
Before Espe made her first save, freshman goalie Samantha Dier made four herself, turning in a stellar day behind a defense that held strong throughout, featuring Natalie Zeenni, Katelyn Almeida, Kayla Mills, Alexa Montgomery and Trujillo after Mills was moved up late in the game.
For the most part however, Sacred Heart was taken out of its game, characterized by touch passing on offense. Aliso Niguel dictated the pace and style of play with its pressure defense and longball offense.
"That was the scouting report is they play longball. And they did and they do it well," Desmond said. "I think they outhustled us for 75% of the game.
"They definitely dictated."
But in roughly the last 10 minutes of regulation, Sacred Heart's offense, which was keyed for much of the match by the inspired play of Krista Meaglia, began to establish itself.
"And that carried over into overtime," Desmond said.
Despite a few scares, mostly on set pieces, which characterized much of the game's stop-and-go feel with plenty of fouls and throw-ins, Sacred Heart was in control in overtime, notching a 5-0 shot disparity.
The best chance of the match came early in the second 10-minute overtime half when Mills made a magnificent pass that split two defenders en route to Johnson, who had a step on her mark and made a move on Prud'homme only to have her game-winning attempt stopped by a diving save.
In the end, though, the game-winner was had by Trujillo — the sixth Tolog to take a PK — and the game-clincher came in the form of another diving save, this one by Espe, who'd been waiting for her moment for the previous 100 minutes of the game and four weeks of the season.
"She took advantage of her opportunity," Desmond said, "and that's awesome."