By Jonathan Andrade
For The Signal
Long after the final whistle of Saturday’s CIF-Southern Section Division 2 girls soccer championship, Saugus High teammates stuck around to give junior defender Alina Bench some words of encouragement.
Bench was still visibly devasted about a foul called on her inside the Centurions penalty box four minutes into the second overtime against visiting La Mirada. That questionable foul call led to La Mirada senior Marissa Marquez slotting a game-winning penalty kick into the lower left corner, giving the Matadores the 2-1 victory for their third section title since 2015.
“I went for the ball,” Bench said. “It’s frustrating.”
The frustration of a title game ending on a penalty kick was understandable following 94 minutes of tightly contested, physical soccer.
“(The referee) hadn’t called a lot of things all day,” said Saugus head coach Kevin Miner. “I was a little surprised he called it. I think it’s a poor way to end a championship game that two teams fought really hard for.”
Saugus struck first seven minutes into the showdown when junior Alyssa Edwards found senior Grace Rutherford with a cross from the left side. Rutherford overpowered her defender in front of the goal to head in the Centurions’ lone goal of the day. It was only the third goal allowed all season by undefeated La Mirada.
The Matadores evened up the score 25 minutes later off a counter attack. Despite many solid opportunities on both sides, the squads held each other scoreless in the second half to force sudden-death overtime.
Four minutes into the second overtime, Bench was called for the foul that led to the eventual game-winner. While the golden goal ended the match, junior Ryan Shepherd insisted the blame for the loss couldn’t be placed on Bench.
“We had a whole 80-minute game plus another 10 minutes,” Shepherd said. “It’s not her (Bench’s) fault. We had a lot of opportunities. She can’t think she’s the reason we lost that game.”
It was a nightmare ending for a fairytale postseason run by the Centurions, but, as the postgame tears dried, a sense of accomplishment was realized.
“To even get this far and play against a team like them — and compete — is really exciting,” Shepherd said.
No one outside of the team’s locker room expected Saugus to do much this postseason. A second-place finisher in the Foothill League and unranked entering the postseason, the Centurions shocked all naysayers. Earning its first playoff wins since 2012, Saugus took down two undefeated teams and outlasted a tough Downey squad in a thrilling penalty kick shootout en route to Saturday’s championship match against powerhouse La Mirada, which reached championship games in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
“We didn’t know we were going to come this far and I’m so happy we got here,” said Nya Baccelli, a senior forward.
Miner said this year’s squad reminded him of the 2009 Saugus team that won the program’s lone section championship.
“I know they’re disappointed, but they should be very, very proud of what they’ve accomplished this year,” Miner said of his players. “They’ve really put their footprint on the program.”
A new standard is set for the future, but the season isn’t over yet. Saugus next travels to Clovis to face Buchanan at 5 p.m. Tuesday in the CIF SoCal Regional Division II Soccer Championships.
The Centurions are looking forward to stepping back onto the pitch.
“We’ll come out even stronger and press harder,” Bench said. “We’ll never give up.”