Hart Indians girls’ soccer powered through its home CIF quarterfinal matchup with the Troy Warriors on Tuesday.
The Indians won the game 5-1 behind exceptional ball movement and solid defense. Junior Natalie Mejia led the way for Hart (13-3-4), with two goals in the last seven minutes of play.
“It’s amazing,” Mejia said. “It’s just unbelievable to me. It feels great to do this with my team, keeping us going in the playoffs and elevating.”
Hart dominated possession and ramped up the attack after each score, the first of which came in the first four minutes.
Forward Alexis Nguyen and midfielder Ariana Salvador moved the ball well to one another, as they diced up the Troy defense. Nguyen fired in a shot on target that just clipped Warriors’ defender Zoe Mendiola for an own goal.
Hart struck again in the 31st minute. Defender Macey Edemann launched a free kick into the box, where senior Briley Phelps was ready to header in the 2-0 goal.
The Indians turned up the heat and went in for the kill to start the second half.
Just after the halftime break, Salvador took a shot on goal but Troy keeper Ava De Leest made the initial save. De Leest’s deflection bounced right to Hart’s other Salvador, as Adrielle knocked in the 3-0 score.
It was all Hart, thanks to the team’s communication and chemistry.
“I think we read every single player well,” Mejia said. “We shifted and then just our movement, and the communication on the field with us. It’s just in our connection. It’s perfect. We’re rising but we just keep going up right now.”
De Leest won’t be pleased with the result but the sophomore racked up 10 saves with Hart on attack nearly the entire game.
The Indians were looking for their sixth straight win and shutout, but will settle with just the victory. Warriors midfielder Ariana Markey fired in a free kick just outside the penalty box that appeared to be saved by Hart goalkeeper Laura Brennan. However, the ball crossed the line just enough, and Troy (15-4) was awarded the score, avoiding what could’ve been the team’s only scoreless outing this season.
Mejia erased any chance of Troy momentum with her two strikes coming in the last eight minutes.
The Indians matched up well with Troy, and the Hart ball movement proved too much for the Warriors.
“They’re a powerhouse,” said Hart head coach Brett Croft. “They’re a great program for many years down there. We were excited to play them and we were ready for a dogfight. I think our ability to connect passes going forward fast, they hadn’t seen that before, and I think that’s what was the ultimate difference.”
Croft’s defense hasn’t been challenged too many times this season but the group, captained by Edemann, is thriving in CIF as the competition stiffens.
“It was rough, we haven’t been challenged,” Edemann said. “Most teams were focused on our offense, really. So, they were really defensive. And I think we’re getting put to the test with teams that don’t really know us. So, I think we’re doing a good job at handling it. We’re communicating really well and really understanding how you tend to play. I think we’re working towards becoming better as a group of explosive players.”
Hart will now return to the CIF semifinals. The win also punched the Indians’ ticket to the state tournament for the second straight year. The Indians have a plethora of returners from last year’s squad, who want nothing more than to return to the big stage for another shot at a title. After a win like Tuesday’s victory over Troy, the team is feeling confident.
“I think this game was the test that was going to tell us, ‘Are we really ready for this?’ and we are,” Croft said. “We’re back to where we were last year and we’re ready to take that one step further. So, I think we’re rocking and rolling now. This is the best game we’ve played. I mean, with putting it all together. It’s the best game we played all year.”
Hart’s postseason journey was cut short twice last year by Redondo Union. While the Indians won’t be able to get another shot at Redondo, the team still has had the itch to fill the championship void.
“I think last year we kind of got put in a position that we didn’t necessarily want both CIF and state,” Edemann said. “So, we really want it this year and we have a big group with a lot of older players who really want it in their last year. We just have to come out, and just go and get it, and I think we’re heading down that path. I think this was a big win for us. Taking out a strong team is really good.”
The Indians will be back on the road Friday, with a familiar foe in the Westlake Warriors. Hart and the Warriors drew 2-2 at Westlake in their first match of the season. Westlake is the third straight Warrior-mascot team that Hart will face in the playoffs.
The Warriors and Indians rematch, in the CIF semifinals, is set for Friday at 5 p.m. at Westlake.
“Last year was just a long run and we just want to make sure we stay up and keep the high standards going,” Mejia said. “I feel like we have a very good chance of going all the way to finals and winning it all. And now we just qualify for state so it was great.”