The seeds for Friday night’s, 1-0, Carlsbad victory over Academy of Our Lady of Peace (OLP) in the CIF Girls Open Division Soccer championship game at Mission Bay High School were sown just over a year ago. Certainly this year’s second-seeded Lancers were a team unto themselves, but when they prevailed over top-seeded OLP on sophomore Lexi Wright’s second half goal, many on the team reflected back to how last year’s tournament ended.
Seeded No. 2 in the 2018 bracket as well, Coach Dean Balent’s club saw a late one-goal advantage slip away and eventually succumbed to Steele Canyon on its home field in penalty kicks. Lessons learned.
“This feels so good,” said Wright, whose score was her school record 38th of the season. “We were all so devastated by what happened last year. We worked so hard to make sure we got back and I think our play showed it.”
Junior teammate Taylor Wells, who supplied the assist on Wright’s goal, was, as always, on the same page. “After what we did last year, we came out more determined from the very start of the season and then made sure we left nothing to chance in the first round of the playoffs,” she said. “When we won that first game, it was huge and tonight we said ‘we’ve made it all the way here, we can’t leave without a win.’ Right now, I’m so excited, I really have no words to describe it.”
Although the two teams had met twice in the regular season with each coming away with one win, the first half was played tentatively and neither the quicker Lancers or bigger, more physical Pilots created much separation.
It was still scoreless at the interval but that changed quickly in the second half. Just under seven minutes in, Wells, reacting to some lackadaisical OLP ballhandling, got a steal near midfield, pushed quickly up the left side, fed a streaking Wright down the center and the 5-4 speedster did the rest, putting a left-footed strike into the net for what proved to be the game-winner.
“I saw their player was kind of hesitant and moved to press her,” said Wells. “I stepped really hard to her, got the ball and heard Lexi screaming to me.
“When the pass connected, I just knew she’d put it in.” It was the latest in a long line of successes between the pair, who ironically, first played together when they were five years old on “the Cobras,” a
Carlsbad area recreation team. It was a one-time collaboration until they re-united at Carlsbad.
“Those two are phenomenal, you would think they’ve been playing together for 10 years,” said Balent, whose team won its first CIF crown since 2012 and first-ever in the Open Division. “They’re so intuitive of where the other is on the field and the thing I appreciate most is the unselfishness between the two of them.
“They truly don’t care who scores. The way they play is the way you want your players to play.”
The Carlsbad defense was solid all night. Steady senior midfielder Marisa Bubnis was charged with shadowing OLP’s Erin Healy in what amounted to a double marking strategy. The tactic seriously limited the impact of the senior star who came into the contest with 38 goals.
The win was not without its anxious moments for the Lancers, though. Balent had gone with a new second half formation to try to create more space for his playmakers and it clearly worked, not only on the scoring play but a flood of other second half opportunities. But as the clock started clicking down and the lead still a single goal, the second-year mentor had his squad pack into a defensive shell. Although the Pilots were never able to crack it, they put a bundle of balls into the box where their tall targets had opportunities. Carlsbad held tight.
“They were down in our end a lot and creating a lot of presence but weren’t getting actual shots,” said Balent. “We may have pulled back a little earlier than we should have but we didn’t want to leave space where an errant pass might have gotten through.”
Carlsbad senior center back Denali Tontini said communication was the key. “I’m really confident with our defenders but I just wanted to make sure everything was staying in front of us and that’s what I was trying to get across to my teammates,” she said. “They (OLP) put in some really great balls and we tried to make sure our tallest players were marked up with their tallest players. Marisa did a great job on Erin and we kept communicating to make sure we knew where she was and kept her covered.
“Last year, it hurt so much to walk away from the last game, a game where we had chances but didn’t convert and it cost us,” Tontini continued. “Tonight, we wanted to come out and play with everything we had so there were no regrets.”
Balent summed it up. “It’s just unbelievable. We’ve worked and played all year to get to this point and to come away with the championship, I couldn’t be prouder of these girls. They played their hearts out.”