It started with two teams, a combined 28-game win streak and 31 total shutouts. Two powerhouse soccer squads hoping to inch closer to finishing the season with a CIF championship. It ended with one team advancing, and players on both benches shedding a fair amount of tears.
La Quinta joined the 2009 Cathedral City squad to become the only Desert Valley League girls’ soccer teams to make the CIF semifinal round, by defeating Hemet 1-0 in the Division V quarterfinals Thursday. The Blackhawks will try to become the first team to make a final when they travel to La Serna on Tuesday for a 3 p.m. game.
“We’re in a territory that we’ve never been before,” La Quinta head coach Bobby Quattlebaum said. “Every game is now going to be a new experience for us.”
A crowd of more than 200 gathered at Hemet High School Stadium for what was expected to be the game of the year for both teams. Neither had been beaten since Dec. 27. Both feature stingy defenses, as Hemet has recorded 16 shutouts since then and La Quinta 15.
La Quinta (20-4-4) dominated possession for much of the first 20 minutes, getting off five shots on goal and keeping the Hemet (22-1-3) defense on its heels. Because the Bulldogs had posted so many shutouts this season, Quattlebaum gave his players the green light to fire at will.
After a scoreless first half and eight saves by Hemet goalie Sarai Esquivel, the Blackhawks finally had a breakthrough in the 57th minute.
La Quinta forward Arianna Rodriquez controlled the ball near midfield and forward Brielle Leon, finding herself open near the Blackhawks’ sideline from 30-yards out, called for the ball.
“With the defenders closing in, I just shot it as hard as a I could,” said Leon, whose perfectly arcing strike tipped off the goalkeeper’s hand and into the right side of the net, giving her a team-leading 25th goal of the season. “I saw the goalie falling back and I thought she might have tipped it but it still went in.”
The result was a stunned, pin-drop silence in the Hemet bleachers. Finally, one fan uttered, “That was amazing.”
“At first, it was just a shock that it went in and that, suddenly, we were winning this game,” said La Quinta forward Rachel Polk, who was near Leon when she took the shot.
Leon and her teammates had multiple opportunities to get on the board earlier in the game, yet came up empty. Quattlebaum said frustration set in and it caused the Blackhawks to get away from their game — which involves heavy ball movement — and the primary reason they were getting great looks on goal earlier in the match.
Quattlebaum spoke about it with his team at halftime.
“I said if we win, we win. If we lose, we lose. But at least we’ll be playing our game,” Quattlebaum said. “And I’ll take our chances against anybody if we’re playing our game.”
Leon’s goal came as a result of the consistent ball movement the Blackhawks regained in the second half.
But with just over 20 minutes remaining, they had to hold off a desperately urgent Hemet push to secure the win.
Madison McFarlane was asked to shadow Hemet standout forward Monerratt Cruz, whom Quattlebaum said was the fastest high school player he’d ever seen. Cruz did get a couple shots late, but Quattlebaum said it was one of the best halves McFarlane has played all season. With mere seconds remaining, Cruz did find a clean look at the net from about 15 yards out on the far right side. The ball bounced hard off the left goalpost. The home crowd roared in anguish.
“We had four inches of luck right there,” Quattlebaum joked afterward. “If that’s a square post, that might be going in. Hey, sometimes you get a little luck, but you can’t rely on it.”