Hart Indians girls’ soccer has ascended to the summit and accomplished its main objective this season: bring home a CIF championship.
The Indians bested the Harvard-Westlake Wolverines for the CIF Division 2 crown at College of the Canyons on Friday night in a windy rainstorm.
Hart senior Briley Phelps scored the game’s only goal in the sixth minute of play. Striker Alexis Nguyen laid off a pass just in front of the goal to Ariana Salvador, who hit Phelps for the score that eventually won the game 1-0, handing the Wolverines their first shutout of the season.
“It’s definitely the best feeling,” Phelps said. “We came full circle. Everything we worked hard for paid off. It was the best way you could’ve ended it.”
The Indians (16-3-4) looked a little more prepared for the wet turf than the Wolverines (15-6-3) were. The ball was dragging hard on the ground and simple passes fell short of their targets throughout the game. Harvard-Westlake aimed to make passes down the field or out to the wings, but it took some time before passes were consistently completed, and Hart took advantage.
Hart dominated possession in the first half, keeping the Wolverines’ defense and keeper Amelia Jackson on their toes. Jackson handled the offensive onslaught well, racking up five saves in the first half alone.
Nguyen was on the other end of almost all of those saves, as the striker fought hard for every ball in the poor weather conditions, despite her team not being able to utilize one of their best assets.
“With the weather conditions being really rough out there, I knew if I wanted to get the ball, I’d have to work hard for it,” Nguyen said. “We weren’t able to pass the ball and combine, and that’s our biggest strength. It was hard but we fought and I’m just really proud of our team for winning without our biggest things: building in the back and combining. We adapted really well.”
Juniors Isa Magee and Natalie Mejia were vital to keeping Hart on the attack. The two made several plays at midfield to spark an offensive play or shut down any potential Wolverine action.
Harvard-Westlake didn’t have nearly as many chances as Hart had to score, but the Wolverines came close a handful of times. The ball took a unique bounce on two separate plays that just got past Indians goalkeeper Laura Brennan. The keeper kept finding ways to stop the odd bounces in the box and picked up two saves in her 15th clean sheet of the season.
Defenders Charlotte Curtis, Ayla Noble and Macey Edemann were vital in slowing down the Wolverines attack. Edemann is often referred to as the anchor on defense by head coach Brett Croft but Noble and Curtis displayed some solid defense when it mattered most.
“Their focus and ability to clear balls forward was remarkable,” Croft said. “Char at left back and Ayla at right back locked down some very elite players on the other side. They were a very big part of our success.”
Croft knew conditions would be less than ideal for this game, but the team’s saying of ‘control what you can control’ yet again for the head coach.
“We didn’t really prepare physically for the rain but we prepared mentally,” Croft said. “We knew conditions were going to be ridiculous. We have the saying; control what you can control. We can’t control the refs or conditions. We can control how hard we had to play. We knew it was going to be crazy and you could tell my girls wanted it.”
One of Harvard-Westlake’s closest chances came off the leg of defender Danielle Lynch. The defender was awarded a free kick from a ways away after a foul. Lynch’s shot was on line just went over the crossbar.
The Wolverines threw everything at Hart in the final minutes but the Indians stood tall. Hart didn’t allow any balls into the box despite the desperate heaves and once the final whistle sounded, Croft and his bench stormed the field in celebration.
“It was surreal,” Croft said. “We’ve been on this road for a while and this is where we wanted to be. In sports you have to focus on one game at a time because if you don’t, you get humbled. I started coaching Hart about eight years ago and I knew in year two that this was going to be the year cause of players we knew were coming in.”
Hart’s CIF run ended in the semifinals last season and since then the team has had the main objective of returning to that point and advancing.
“It was just really exciting,” Nguyen said. “I couldn’t believe it. We worked so hard and have such an amazing team with so much love and chemistry. We worked really hard to get here so it was really rewarding.”
The Indians will enjoy the moment but be back in action next week for the state tournament. The team has shown no signs of wanting to slow down and enjoy the offseason as champs, so fans may be in for another playoff run.
“I just want to say I’m thankful for playing with the girls I play with,” Phelps said. “We couldn’t have done it without every single girl on the roster. Every girl gave it all, one through 29.”
Harvard-Westlake will also enter the state tournament with a potential second shot at the Indians.
All qualifying teams find out their state tournament paths on Sunday, when the CIF releases its state brackets.