A potential all-North County final is looming in the CIF Girls Open Division Soccer playoffs with the North Coast represented on both sides of the bracket in Wednesday’s (Feb. 20) semi-finals.
Fourth-seeded Cathedral Catholic (16-3-3), under veteran Head Coach Dawn Lee, hooks up with top-seeded Academy of Our Lady of Peace (18-3-2) in one match-up while second-year Coach Dean Balent’s Carlsbad (21-4-1) side hosts West Hills (11-7-5) on the other. Wednesday’s two winners will lock horns two days later in the finals at Mission Bay High School.
Lee’s Dons, who had been knocked out in the first round the past two years, punched their ticket to the final four with a 3-0 triumph over neighborhood rival Canyon Crest. A 40-yd. free kick by junior center back Megan Janikowski opened the scoring and Cathedral pushed its lead to two goals right before halftime when senior Kennedy Rawding punched in a shot from inside the six-yard box following a throw-in. Another senior, Kelsey Oen, celebrated her 18th birthday and put the game out of reach by banging in a cleared ball from 30 yards out in the second half. Lee was happy with both the way her team performed and the simple fact it was moving on.
“After losing this first game by a goal the last two times, it’s awesome just to know that we were able to get past it,” said Lee, who has coached Cathedral Catholic (formerly USDHS) to seven CIF Division II titles as well as the 2014 Division I championship but is still looking for the school’s first in the Open Division. “We knocked the ball around pretty well, particularly considering the weather.
“We’ve been winning but not playing that well lately and today was one of the more controlled, ‘Don-style soccer’ games we we’ve played in a while.”
In OLP, Cathedral will be facing not only the defending CIF Division II winner but an opponent they have met twice already this season. OLP was a 3-0 winner when the two clubs met Jan. 14. The Dons have been undefeated (7-0-2) since that loss and one of the wins was a 1-0 decision over OLP. Lee said she expects the third encounter to be “another grinder,” but feels her group has an undefinable quality that she hopes can provide an edge against the Pilots.
“If a team’s chemistry is right, it’s amazing what it can get you through,” said Lee. “This team is super special and truly plays for each other—it has something, just a closeness, that’s allowed us to pull out games we wouldn’t have won last year.”
In the other half of the bracket, Avocado West League champ Carlsbad handled seventh seed Scripps Ranch, 2-1, surrendering a penalty kick with 70 seconds to go after being in command from the start. Like Cathedral, the Lancers erased some demons from the 2018 opening round where they let what looked like a sure victory slip through their fingers in penalty kicks against eventual CIF runner-up Steele Canyon.
“All eight Open teams are very good but the seventh and eighth seeds come in with absolutely nothing to lose,” said Balent. “It was the same spot as last year and we didn’t want to get caught like we did then.
“Are girls are really determined. They’re doing everything we ask in terms of positioning, challenging and making purposeful passes because they all want to win.”
Just past the midway point of the first half Wednesday, Carlsbad drew first blood. Gifted sophomore Lexi Wright, MVP of the Avo West drove down the left side nearly all the way to the end line, crossed it back to Taylor Wells at the top of the box and her junior counterpart drilled it home.
In the 70th minute, Wright got one of her own, making it a school record 34 on the season, and at that juncture, Balent circled the wagons, tightening up the defense down the stretch to preserve the result.
“We knew what to expect from having played Scripps Ranch in the UC holiday tournament (a 2-1 Carlsbad win),” said Balent. “We know we’re a good team and decided to just go out and play our game, try to set the tempo and let them match up to us.
“Once we had a two-goal lead, we buttoned things up—our girls were very focused and didn’t want to make any mistakes like last year.”
The semi-final will pit Balent & Co. against another team they’ve already met. In fact, the Lancers have split two confrontations with West Hills, knocking off the Wolf Pack, 3-0, in the first game of the season at home and then dropping a 3-2 verdict on the road two weeks later. In that one, West Hills led, 3-0, at halftime before Wright registered a pair in the second half.
“That’s the best thing about our side of the bracket,” said Balent. “We’ve played all of the teams. We know West Hills, we’ll be comfortable playing them and will try to play to our strengths.”
West Hills reached the rematch with Carlsbad by downing third-seeded Torrey Pines, 3-2. On what Falcon Coach Martyn Hansford called “a bizarre night,” West Hills made the home team pay for an errant clearing pass two minutes into the game. Torrey was able to tie it at one when junior Sydney Sanchez completed a nifty passing sequence that involved nearly half a dozen players. The Wolf Pack scored next but the Falcons responded again. Less than 10 minutes prior to the interval, junior Tatum Lenain sent a short corner kick in, it was played back to her, she juked one defender to get clear and put her left foot on the finish. At that stage, Hansford still envisioned a happy ending.
“We’re tied, 2-2, at half, had been able to apply pressure and get chances,” said the director of two previous Open Division champs (2016 & 2017) at the school. “We made some adjustments, I felt good.” But when heavy rainfall came in the second half, a moisture-induced defensive miscue led to the deciding West Hills goal and the Falcons’ campaign ended at 14-4-4 with a second straight first round exit. Hansford was disappointed but philosophical.
“We had a great record, finished second in league and were the No. 3 seed in the Open Division, that’s a pretty good season,” said Hansford. “We had so many chances in the second half tonight but just couldn’t score and that was sort of the story of our season.” He sees a tight battle between West Hills and Carlsbad in the semi-final.
“It’s going to be an interesting game because they are kind of similar teams,” said Hansford. “Both defenses like to play long balls out of the back that are hard to deal with and both have good scorers.
“Whoever makes the fewest mistakes will win.”