Two teams. With two hardened defenses. And two left strikers that proved dangerous when left in open space.
That was how the battle between No. 2 Mission Oak and top-seeded Caruthers for the Central Section Division IV girls soccer title was billed.
And in a match that refused to end after 110 minutes — two indecisive five-minute sudden death periods on top of regulation and two scoreless 10-minute overtime periods — of play, it was the more-complete Caruthers team that finished on top by way of penalty kicks.
“It made it tough for us. We were playing through injuries, short of few players that were key players for us throughout the whole year,” said Mission Oak coach John Pimentel, who started five freshman and two sophomores against the senior-laden Blue Raiders.
“Our JV and freshman players stepped up. We left everything on the field.”
Mission Oak found holes in Caruthers’ defense early on — with the Hawks’ accurate passing giving way to fast breaks against an unsettled defense. Mission Oak got in two shots in the first minutes, though both missed.
But through the right legs of sophomore Liz Cui and senior Allison Serpa, the Hawks got off to a 2-0 advantage 31 minutes into regulation.
A wide-open Cui, who came off a four-goal performance in the Hawks 6-0 semifinal win over Fresno High, kicked the ball dead center past goalkeeper Kayla Day for the first score of the game.
Serpa scored a goal two minutes later off an Averee Johnson corner kick.
Caruthers fought fire with fire.
The Blue Raiders evened the scored within the first five minutes of the second period. Senior speedster Jerrica Babb — whom freshman Paloma Torres and the young Mission Oak defense were given the tall task of defending — scored a goal in the 43rd minute off a corner kick that went in after deflecting the farthest goal post.
Babb scored again two minutes later after sprinting off the left edge of the field.
“Big players make big plays in big games, and she (Jerrica) did that big-time tonight,” Caruthers coach Jon Allen said. “She’s been like that for four years.”
The highly contested bout was settled through penalty kicks. Cui made the first kick for Mission Oak, though the Hawks would miss their next two.
Caruthers made all its penalty kicks, with Yazmin Aguirre’s being the final dagger.
The Hawks’ defense persevered through make-or-break moments in overtime and sudden death. Goalkeeper Khristall Pimental and the Mission Oak defense held firm ground during the final few minutes of overtime, when the Blue Raiders pressured the box the most.
But the Hawks, much like Caruthers, had opportunities to score in which they didn’t.
“I felt overall we dominated the game, controlled the game,” Pimental said. “But we didn’t capitalize on the opportunities that we had. And that’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Caruthers (28-0), which cruised through the season and West Sequoia League play, won its second section title in three years.
Mission Oak finished its season 14-8-3.
“We definitely had a lot of injuries but I’m proud of our girls because everyone stepped up and did their best,” said Serpa, one of the Hawks’ team captains. “Whoever we put on the field, they tried their hardest and we love each other for that.”
Added Pimental: “These girls that are here, all the ones that are staying behind for next year, they should be very happy. There’s that opportunity next year to be back on this showcase. Hopefully next year we can host it ourselves.”