The neighborhood rivals battled each other during the West Bay Athletic League season and at one point had identical records of 5-0 in league (8-2-1 overall). Heading into its final match of the regular season, against SHP, Menlo had a chance to deadlock the Gators for first place.
And, in the five years that the teams have played in the WBAL, neither had won a Central Coast Section match.
This postseason, however, was different for both teams as each got over the hump by winning their openers and then embarked on historic journeys by reaching the semifinals and finals. The Knights had never advanced this far while the Gators hadn't done it since 2007, when Division III was held in the fall.
Thus, the rivals met for a third time last Saturday at Oak Grove High in San Jose to decide who earned the Cinderella role this season. As it turned out, they shared it with their 1-1 deadlock that stretched into a pair of overtimes with neither team emerging on top as championship matches aren't decided by penalty kicks.
Somewhat surprising, it was difficult to tell the outcome of the title match by looking at the teams following the final whistle. The Menlo School players were smiling and happy, hugging each other and celebrating their hard-earned result. The Sacred Heart Prep players, meanwhile, had their heads in their hands and appeared crushed.
Simply put, the Knights were happy as co-champs and the Gators were not.
"They're not happy," SHP coach Armando del Rio said of his players. "They really feel like they lost. I saw some players crying who I had never seen cry before.
"We won league and beat them (the Knights) twice (during the regular season). We knew we were the better team . . . We had 100 minutes to prove it . . . We had never lost to them, but Menlo was hungrier than ever. We were a little too tense; we didn't enjoy the match. I told the team, 'Guys, we didn't lose.' But, they're taking it as a loss."
Menlo took it otherwise.
"I'm fine with a championship banner, either way," said Menlo senior Ryan Karle. "We've never had one up in the gym, now we will. That's our legacy. When we return 10 years from now, that banner will still be up in the gym."
Added fellow senior Max Parker: "We've never won. They won seven titles in the fall. I would have been so happy with anything today."
Perhaps the emotional differences stemmed from the fact that Sacred Heart Prep had never lost to Menlo during five years in the WBAL, going 8-0-2 during that time. The Gators also had those seven CCS Division III titles and seven runner-up finishes during the fall from 1988-2007.
Menlo, meanwhile, has never won a WBAL title and never beaten the Gators. Prior to this season, the Knights had never won more than one match in postseason play — that coming in 2002. Thus, Menlo's goals for this season were pretty simple, especially with a new head coach in Marc Kerrest.
"We wanted to win league, beat Prep and win a CCS game," said Karle. "We didn't do two of those, but we exceeded my expectations, so I'm really happy about it."
"I wasn't immediately satisfied," Parker said of the tie. "But now, it's sinking in."
The No. 5-seeded Gators (18-2-4) grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first half when junior Andrew Segre curved a shot past Menlo keeper Timmy Costa with 4:45 remaining before intermission.
In the second half, Parker was taken down in the penalty box by SHP keeper Hugo Sanchez. Costa left his goalie position and took the penalty kick, which he converted for a 1-1 deadlock with 24:30 remaining in regulation.
While he had scored a couple of goals while playing in the field this season, this was the first time Costa scored while playing keeper the entire game.
"It was awesome," the senior said.
The match ended tied in regulation, with the teams then playing two 10-minute overtime periods with neither squad scoring —despite having opportunities.
Both teams came up with solid defensive efforts to turn back numerous near-misses by the offenses. Protecting Costa in goal was Justin Wang, Matt Myers, Mason Brady, Jackson Wagner and Andrew Stepien. Helping out Sanchez was SHP's back line of Derek and Grant Chou plus Tommy Meaney.
But, it was much more than just those players as everyone seemingly contributed at some point in a match where both teams deserved to leave with a trophy. They were that even on this day.
While the No. 10-seed Knights (15-5-4) earned their first-ever section title, the Gators notched their eighth overall. Both teams left everything on the field, with bodies flying and yellow cards being issued, and everyone was exhausted by game's end. Thus, it was easy to be elated or deflated.
"Coming into this game, they had beaten us twice," Kerrest said. "But, at the end of the day I'm proud of my guys. We won a championship this year. We're CCS (co-) champions. A great way to end the season. I just feel good for the seniors."
Said Karle: "We're going out with a bang."
SHP's de Rio also hopes his players look back at what they accomplished and feel the same way.
"We had three objectives — play and work together as one and win two trophies (league and CCS). We accomplished all of them," said del Rio, who now has won a CCS title as both a player and coach -- at the same school (and which was more enjoyable? "As a coach, for sure!")."I'm at peace as I'm proud. The team was distraught afterward because they are highly competitive, strong-willed young men. But, they're champions and will always be remembered at SHP for their work this season."