The difference between the St. Helena and Calistoga sidelines after their boys soccer season opener Wednesday was stark.
The Saints were excited and hopeful. They smiled, patted each other on the backs and high-fived, their postgame scrum buzzing with energy. Meanwhile, the Wildcats changed out of their cleats and into their street shoes quietly, exchanging a few words but mostly mulling on the game that had just ended.
The teams played to a 2-2 tie at Logyy Park in Calistoga last Wednesday in the first game of the 2019 season, but the result felt anything like a draw.
For the Saints, the win sparked optimism for the upcoming season. They played a talented Calistoga team that has had their number in recent history. The last win St. Helena had over its Napa Valley rival came in 2007 and the Saints lost the next two matchups 7-3 and 7-1, the most recent of which was last season.
For the Wildcats, it was a disappointing result. The last time they had met it was clear who the better team was. On Wednesday, that distinction was harder to make.
At first, though, the Wildcats looked like best team in the Upper Valley. They took a 1-0 lead in the second minute of the game and went into halftime with the one-goal advantage. They certainly had their chances to add to that lead in the first 40 minutes, but none found fruition.
On the other side, the Saints had plenty of their own chances, but Calistoga goalkeeper Jose Lopez fended them off with relative ease.
That changed about midway through the second half, when St. Helena’s Diego Moya found the back of the net off a rebounded shot to even the score at 1-1 in the 57th minute. Wanting to keep their winning streak over their Upvalley rivals alive, especially in front of a home crowd, the Wildcats turned up the intensity. They untied the score in the 58th minute when Adan Rodriguez sneaked a shot past St. Helena’s charging goalie.
Such a quick response might sink some teams, but this was the closest game the Saints had been in against the Wildcats in years. Down 2-1 late in the second half? That’s nothing.
Sensing the door was still open, the Saints turned up their intensity. There had been jawing and bumping and bustling throughout the entire game – a Calistoga player danced in front of St. Helena’s goalie after the Wildcats retook the lead – and it only became more frequent as the game headed toward a close.
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Finally, in the 71st minute, the Saints broke through. It was Fabio Perez who brought the score even at 2-2, when his close-range shot off a scramble in the box found paydirt.
Now the pressure was on for both teams. St. Helena had the momentum, while Calistoga had desperation. Momentum nearly prevailed but the Saints couldn’t convert on a scoring chance in the box in the closing seconds.
Even after the final whistled sounded about a minute later, the drama continued. Calistoga had possession of the ball deep in St. Helena territory and was pushing for one final shot, but the referees ended the game before the hosts got a chance. Wildcats players were not happy and voiced their displeasure to the officials as they walked off the field, their frustration from the game spilling out.
On the other side, the smile on St. Helena head coach Ozzie Gallegos’ face was contagious as he congratulated his team while reflecting on what he hopes is the beginning of a promising season.
“I think every year we’ve grown,” Gallegos said. “If you remember last year’s game, we got blown out and at times it was even a little bit embarrassing but we’re still learning. We’re only getting better.
“(Calistoga) is a veteran team and defending champs in the North Central League II, so I’m nothing but happy for our guys, and finally we showed a little emotion. I told our guys we’re not talking strategy in the second half, we’ve just got to let it all out on the field and I think we did in the second half.”
Calistoga first-year head coach Scott Hester was critical of his team after his first game on the sidelines, saying he thought they made mental errors. But he also recognized that getting the Wildcats into championship form will be a process, one that had barely started before they suited up for their game against the Saints.
“For most of my players, it was their first week of practice, so we had minimal amount of continuity and it showed in the game,” Hester said. “And then conditioning and with limited subs, we got tired. I think we made some mental errors or fatigue errors and gave them a couple of opportunities.”
Only time will tell what directions these two teams will take this season, but in their season opener the Saints showed that maybe the gap between them and their Upvalley neighbors is shrinking.
“Our program is starting to come alive again, especially in the last two seasons,” Gallegos said. “About 95 percent of the guys on the field today will be back next year so that shows how much we’ve grown over the last two seasons, especially last year to this year.”