Fri, Mar 09 2012 02:01 PM Posted By: Phillip Brents
When photographers lined up to take the traditional post-game snapshots following last Saturday’s San Diego Section Division II boys soccer championship game at Serra High School, they were presented with the usual contrasts: smiling faces from the winners and, well, exceedingly long faces on the part of the losers.
The Hilltop Lancers’ facial expressions befitted their 2-0 loss to the La Costa Canyon Mavericks.
To put it simply, it wasn’t supposed to end like this.
“The hardest part was looking into their eyes and seeing all the sadness,” Hilltop coach John Salts said.
The sadness from 14 seniors, in particular.
The 2011-12 Lancers were a team built for redemption after finishing runner-up in last year’s division final. Instead, their defeat was even more crushing this time around.
“Few teams get a second chance like this one did and that’s why it hurts so much,” Salts said.
The HHS coach didn’t need to elaborate, as players wept long after the final whistle sounded.
Parents, friends and coaches tried to console them, but their eyes remained wet.
As is usually the case in these scenarios, the top-seeded Lancers can only blame themselves. Missed opportunities, especially in the waning minutes, will forever produce nightmares.
“If we had scored first, I think they (the Mavericks) would have collapsed, I really do,” Salts said.
What second-seeded La Costa Canyon (15-5-2) did was play to its strengths, which was to defend throughout the opening three-quarters of the match and then seize the opportunities when they presented themselves.
Hilltop’s back line appeared equally impenetrable, but the Lancers (20-3-3) were simply unable to finish what chances they created.
It happens in what is affectionately termed by some as “the beautiful game.”
And there is no denying Hilltop played the more beautiful game to watch. But winning ugly often produces results.
Both LCC goals came on haphazard plays when six-foot-four junior goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas was forced to stop point-blank shots.
In doing so, Zendejas was left sprawled on the pitch, unable to recover to his feet, as the ball bounded off several bodies before a Maverick player finally found an opening to score with Hilltop defensive players pulled out of position.
Ryan Blasena was credited with what proved to be the game-winning goal. It came with 20 minutes left in regulation play.
Junior Pascal Despres tacked on an insurance marker five minutes later.
The goals were the first allowed by the Lancers in two years of post-season competition.
While obviously disheartening to the two-time defending Mesa League champions and their chances of winning the game, playing from behind did serve to give them a purpose for the remainder of the match.
The Lancers had a glorious chance to draw one goal back when senior forward Omar Hernandez faced an open net with 10:35 to play. A spectacular collision between LCC junior goalkeeper Adam Allmaras, a Maverick defender and a Hilltop attacker knocked Allmaras out of the play as the ball caromed off to their right and into the path of an onrushing Hernandez.
The Lancer scoring wizard, with 25 goals already to his credit this season, merely had to give the ball a soft nudge to push it across the goal line.
But in the excitement, Hernandez shot much too hard and the ball screamed over the net. He bent over in anguish afterward.
Opportunities like that usually do not repeat themselves, especially late in games.
“What I’m most proud of is that our guys didn’t quit,” Salts said. “They kept attacking until the last second. These guys really left it on the field and that’s all we can ask for as coaches.”
When the whistle sounded to end the game, Hilltop players covered their faces with their shirts and tears quickly commenced.
They knew they had let their coveted second chance slip away.
“Hilltop is a really great passing team and my back line was really forced to step up,” LCC coach Dave Cohen said. “When we finally scored, that took the air out of them and we started to have more balance.”
The Mavs remained undefeated in their last 10 games (9-0-1).
The balance sheet for the Lancers reads 44-6-4 over the past two seasons, two league titles and two division championship runner-up appearances. Those are numbers any team in the section would be hard-pressed to match.
But it will not seem complete without a CIF title tucked in there somewhere.
“This group of guys really deserved to win this,” Salts said. “They worked so hard to get back here. Our defense had a great run the last two years and they need to hold their heads high.”
The team’s motto this season was “I believe.”
“‘We believe’ is for the fans,” the HHS coach said.
From 14 seniors, that message emanated from the soul.
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