Brielle Leon stormed the field at La Quinta High School, running directly toward Blackhawks’ goalie Arianna Rodriguez.
Once she found her, the two teammates embraced for nearly a full 15 seconds, their eyes welling with tears, before Rodriguez finally spoke the words that summed up Friday’s dramatic 4-3 victory over St. Margaret’s.
“We did this for you,” Rodriguez uttered to Leon, who was forced to sit out the CIF-SS Division V quarterfinal game after being issued a red card Wednesday.
The Blackhawks had been fighting back an uneasy emotion for the duration of the two-and-a-half hour match. With Leon unable to attend the game per CIF rules, she intently watched with friends under the scoreboard, just beyond the fence at the stadium.
“I was on the edge of my seat the entire time,” said Leon, in between laughing and crying. “I owe my team for life.”
The common theme for her teammates the entire game was to win for Leon, their leading scorer, so that she could return for the semifinals. And after securing the win on penalty kicks in the shootout overtime period, that’s now where the Blackhawks are headed.
La Quinta hosts San Marino on Tuesday for a chance to play in the CIF title game. It’s one step further than the Blackhawks went last year, and the deepest postseason run any girls soccer team at La Quinta has ever made.
“The girls just kept saying, ‘We don’t want to make the Maranatha game Brielle’s last game,’ ” La Quinta head coach Bob Quattlebaum said. “That’s been the story of this team all year long. In the past, we’ve had individuals. This year, we’re a team, we do everything as a team, and they won that way tonight.
“This shows that this is not a one person team.”
But after Wednesday’s narrow victory over Maranatha, and without Leon, there were no guarantees for the Blackhawks (23-1-1), the top seed in the bracket.
Battling arguably it’s toughest opponent to date, winds that reached up to 30 mph and a mixture of rain, La Quinta struggled to find the back of the net. Though the Blackhawks controlled much of the possession, the offense didn’t threaten nearly as often as it has throughout much of the season.
Fortunately, the defense again came up big. Rodriguez was as active in the goal as she has been all season, and though the Tartans had a number of decent shots on the goal, the defense managed to contest nearly every one.
After regulation ended and the game extended to overtime, players again used Leon as a way to fuel each other down the stretch.
“Everybody was nervous because Brielle is such a big part of out team,” senior defender Brenda Barriga said. “I put it in my head. I put it in the girls’ heads that we weren’t going to let her go out the way she would have if we had lost.”
After the second of two scoreless 10-minute overtime periods, players brought a life-sized cardboard cutout of Leon, wearing her No. 22 jersey, into the huddle with them. They were all going into the shootout round together.
Rodriguez took her place in the net and St. Margaret’s shot first. The goal sailed right and into the net, quieting the restless crowd of more than 200. The Tartans went put, 1-0.
La Quinta forward Kailee Prescott then stepped up and drilled her shot past St. Margaret’s goalie Stephanie Saavedra to tie the score, 1-1.
Perhaps the play of the game came next. As the next St. Margaret’s player went for the same spot as the first, Rodriguez anticipated it and made a diving save.
La Quinta midfielders Marisa Rodriguez, Sydney Hannibal and Stephanie Esquivel all made their shots, putting St. Margaret’s in a tough position. If the Tartans missed their last shot, the game would be over.
The last player took eight steps to the ball, fired away, and it sailed over the top of the goalpost. The game was over. La Quinta had survived again.
“At halftime we talked about it,” Quattlebaum said. “After the first overtime we talked about it. We didn’t want this to be twenty-two’s last game, and I’m glad it’s not.”