Saugus boys soccer beats Norwalk for first CIF final appearance

Dan Watson/The Signal

LA MIRADA – An early lapse combined with a clutch score late in regulation set the stage Tuesday for James Johnson to deliver the most memorable postseason goal in Saugus boys soccer history.

After surrendering a goal to Norwalk’s Andrew Vasquez in the first 30 seconds of their CIF-Southern Section Division 4 semifinal, the Centurions were rescued by a dramatic Tanner Brown free kick in the final two minutes of the second half, only to have Johnson deliver even bigger heroics in overtime.

MORE SOCCER: Hart girls fall in semis to Mater Dei in double overtime

Four minutes into the second sudden-death period, Johnson received a pass from Jason Hindigian and took advantage of a one-on-one opportunity against Norwalk goalkeeper Kevin Guzman to bury the golden goal inside the left post, lifting Saugus to its first division final with a 2-1 victory at La Mirada High.

“It was in slow motion and all I was thinking was, ‘Don’t mess this up’ and we did it and we battled and we played amazing,” said Johnson, who scored his 26th goal of the season.

“We’re a perfect example of (never giving up). We’re fighters and this is my last year and a lot of our (players’) last year and we didn’t come here to go home early.”

The Centurions (17-6-4) became the second Foothill League boys soccer program to reach a section championship match, following Hart in 2015. Saugus will try to accomplish what the Indians couldn’t by defeating Bellflower (16-8-1) – a 3-2 semifinal winner over Western – in the final either Friday or Saturday at a site to be determined.

Johnson’s goal marked the second straight match Saugus prevailed in the second overtime, following Josh De Leon’s dramatic score Saturday in a 1-0 quarterfinal victory at Colony.

“With his touch and his speed and his ability to just get that little touch on the ball to get it past the goalkeeper, J.J. has done it so many times for us this season,” said Saugus coach Seth Groller. “He puts himself in the right spot and he’s tough to catch, he’s tough to beat and he’s tough to defend. He’s definitely a special player for us.”

Moments earlier, Norwalk (16-7-1) had its best opportunity in sudden death with a shot by Allen Perez redirected in front of Matt Sayers, resulting in the Saugus goalkeeper having to save the ball on an awkward bounce.

But Sayers’ long punt was possessed by Hindigian and played ahead to Johnson, who gathered himself and calmly slipped a right-footed shot past Guzman, before being mobbed by teammates and coaches in celebration.

“Jason is a very smart player and he knows J.J.’s abilities and other players’ abilities and he knows when to distribute and when to take it himself,” Groller said. “That little flick off to J.J. to allow him to have that situation was just what we needed.”

Brown’s goal couldn’t have come at a better time for Saugus, especially after two near misses on free kicks earlier in the second half. His 45-yard shot floated in the air, before dipping under the crossbar at the last second for the tying score.

“I just thought I could get a ball in the box and then my team would have a better opportunity, but right when I hit it, it just went in,” said Brown. “It was insane, I felt like I was about to cry. It was unreal. The momentum after I scored the goal just carried us into overtime.”

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