Cinderella, welcome back to the ball.
It will be the Menlo boys, and not the girls, playing for a CCS Division III title on Saturday, set for Oak Grove High in San Jose at 3 p.m. Facing the Knights will be WBAL and neighborhood rival Sacred Heart Prep. It couldn't have been scripted any better.
The fifth-seeded Gators have a gaudy 18-2-3 record, have won five straight league titles and appeared in 14 previous CCS title matches, albeit all during the fall season.
The 10th-seeded Knights have a very fine 15-5-3 record, have never won a WBAL title and will be making only their first appearance in a section championship game. Moreover, the Menlo boys have never beaten Sacred Heart Prep in league play and stand 0-8-2 in the series since 2009.
Menlo senior Max Parker said he knows the history and that it doesn't matter.
"It's all here for us to take," he said.
The Knights set up the historic showdown by defeating No. 3 seed Harbor, 3-1, on Wednesday night at Menlo-Atherton High. Parker scored twice and senior Ryan Karle once.
The Gators, meanwhile, got a goal from senior Brendan Spillane off an assist from Grant Chou in the first half and made it stand up for a 1-0 victory over host and No. 9 seed Gilroy (11-10-2).
Sacred Heart Prep defeated Menlo twice during the WBAL season, but this time is different.
"It is very difficult to beat a team three times," said SHP coach Armando del Rio, "but it is difficult to beat any team in CCS. A rivalry game is always difficult, so I know they have the 'three times a charm' thing in their favor. But, we are just as ambitious to win the game by playing well as a team.
"They (Menlo) are motivated because it is the final, and they have never beaten us. On the other hand, that gives us even more motivation. I think we were made for games of this dimension, and we will fight our best."
SHP did what it needed to get the job done at Gilroy.
"We had multiple opportunities to put the game away but, in the end, we did not need to win the game twice!" del Rio said of the single goal.
This will be the Gators' 15th appearance in a CCS title match, but only the first since they left the fall playoffs for the winter after the 2007 season. Since beginning play in the WBAL in 2008-09, SHP had failed to win a section match until this season.
The Gators won seven CCS titles in the fall and finished second seven other times. This will be del Rio's third third title match, the two previous as a player in 1999 and 2000.
"In the past, I would be worried about playing a team we have beaten three times. But, I am just focused on the next game and the now," del Rio said. "We need to play well, play to dominate both halves, and try and shut down their key players. I do not feel pressure; this is fun, well-deserved and earned. Pressure is losing your job and needing to feed your family!"
Menlo, meanwhile, is having a Cinderella run through the playoffs by beating No. 7 Burlingame and No. 2 Soledad before eliminating the Pirates (13-6-3).
"We came in really prepared," Menlo first-year coach Marc Kerrest said. "We knew what we were in for. We knew they'd be a great team, they're in the semifinals, but we liked our chances with our team playing well."
Parker, who is a captain along with goalie Timmy Costa and Andrew Schmitt, got the game rolling with a header in the 17th minute on an assist from Karle.
"Max had a great game," said Kerrest. "He had struggled earlier with an injury, but he's clearly healthy and that made a huge difference."
Five minutes later, Harbor was awarded a penalty kick and Max Ehle equalized.
Shortly after, Karle scored the eventual winning goal. Menlo dominated the shots in the first half, but Costa made a beautiful save in the 25th minute, and the Knights closed the half ahead 2-1.
"Tim Costa has been huge for us back there all season," said Kerrest, whose Knights have outscored their opponents 43-16.
In the 71st minute, Parker tore down the right sideline, then fired a shot which hit the left post and bounced in for the final tally.
The Menlo girls spent the final day of the 2012 season hugging each other. They smiled and they celebrated after winning the first CCS title in program history.
Many of those same players spent the final day of the 2013 season also hugging each other. But instead of smiles and celebration, there were tears and disappointment.
What appeared all season as a triumphant march back to the CCS Division III title game came crashing down on Wednesday as the Knights fell to Harbor in penalty kicks, 4-2, in semifinal action at Menlo-Atherton High.
Eighty minutes of regulation ended 0-0 while 20 additional minutes of overtime left the teams knotted at 1-1.
"It's frustrating," said Menlo coach Donoson FitzGerald, who did his best to say the right things to his players to take away the sting of the shocking defeat. "When you win, it's awesome. When you lose, it's a killer."
On paper, Harbor came in with a No. 6 seed while Menlo was a No. 2. When the teams took the field for the pre-game introductions, however, three Menlo starters —senior Hannah Rubin, junior Lindsay Karle and sophomore Alexandra Walker —were on crutches. And junior Jaye Boissiere, the team's top scorer last season, was in uniform but wearing flip flops, a sign she still wasn't ready after missing the entire season due to injury.
There were other injuries, as well, during a season where the Knights handled one adversity after another while winning a second straight WBAL title. This time, however, there were too many missing parts to keep the team running into the finals.
"We definitely had a bunch of injuries," said FitzGerald, who felt uncomfortable laying all the blame there. "It hurts, big time. But, we didn't play that well."
Menlo (13-3-6) had plenty of chances in the first 20 minutes of the match as junior Amanda McFarland hit the crossbar, senior Maya Norman had a hard shot on goal and junior Chandler Wickers was foiled on a 1 v. 1 with the keeper.
In the second half, Harbor (8-6-7) become the aggressor and had four near-misses in the first 20 minutes while Wickers got a shot past the goalie that was deflected away at the last moment on a defender. Menlo freshman Elena Gray just missed a goal wide right and then junior Sienna Stritter was taken down just outside the penalty box, with the resulting free kick coming up empty.
Menlo turned up the head in the first OT period, with Wickers nearly scoring again on a 1 v. 1 with the keeper. Opportunities by both teams were missed and the second extra period started.
Harbor finally broke the ice when a shot in front of the goal deflected off the hands of Menlo freshman keeper Schuyler Tilney-Volk. The Knights, however, battled back and got the equalizer when junior Emma LaPorte found the back of the net after being moved up from fullback to forward. Menlo celebrated its second chance to win.
All the goal did, however, was send the match to penalty kicks. Despite having Tinley-Volk play the entire match in goal, FitzGerald went with senior Julia Dressel.
"She's the girl who we felt is best at stopping PKs," said FitzGerald.
Harbor started the PK session with a goal, but LaPorte's shot was blocked. The Pirates scored again, as did Wickers. Harbor made it 3-1 before Gray countered for 3-2. The Pirates pushed it to 4-2, leaving it up to senior Rachel Pinsker to keep the shootout going. Her shot, however, was blocked and the celebration began.
This time, however, it was the Harbor celebrating and not Menlo.
"We're all super-disappointed," FitzGerald said. "We all wanted to win again, but we look back on this team and see how they've adjusted to so many injuries and did so well."
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