Even though Milton Gallegos was not actually on the field for the St. Helena girls soccer team’s playoff opener against Clear Lake on Wednesday, his smartwatch couldn’t tell.
The first-year head coach’s heart rate quickened to the point that his watch congratulated him on a good workout.
That’s what a penalty-kick shootout in the playoffs will do to you.
In heart-racing fashion, the eighth-seeded Saints edged out No. 9 seed Clear Lake in penalty kicks, 6-4, in front of a rowdy home crowd at St. Helena High to advance to the quarterfinals of the North Coast Section Division 1 playoffs.
Emma Fife played hero against the Cardinals (12-9), whom the Saints (12-5) had beaten twice in the regular season. Fife volunteered to not only man the goal for the shootout, but also to score the deciding goal. The senior’s winning save followed her shot and she celebrated by racing around the field while her teammates tried to catch her. They eventually did and subsequently buried her under a dogpile.
“That was the most stressful time of my life,” Fife said, her eyes red from crying. “It was so stressful, but it was totally worth it in the end.”
During practices leading up to the playoff opener, Fife and the Saints had actually worked on late-game situations like the one they encountered Wednesday. Penalty kicks decide only games in the postseason, and Gallegos figured his team should be prepared for what he predicted could be a close contest.
“We knew from playing them last week that this team was going to come out and play every second,” he said. “We knew what we were up against. We knew it wasn’t going to be a walk-through. Actually, last night, to finish practice, we went through a scenario like this because I knew that this was not going to be more than a one-goal difference, if that.
“So we were prepared for this. Our five shooters were ready, the backup group was ready just in case. We were ready for this and, fortunately, everything fell into place.”
St. Helena reached the penalty kick shootout by forcing overtime on another penalty kick, by Tina Almanza in the 80th and final minute of regulation. The Saints had led 2-0 early in the first half thanks to goals from Madeline Sullivan and Elizabeth Sandoli, before Clear Lake tied the game just prior to the break.
Coming out of halftime, Cydney Adamson put St. Helena back in front with a goal in the 44th minute. But the Cardinals responded with two more goals in the second frame to jump into the lead, 4-3.
Almanza’s goal in the final minute of regulation gave the Saints new life as they held the Cardinals scoreless over the two 10-minute overtime periods to set up the shootout.
“I told them at halftime that the team that wins this was the one that had composure,” Gallegos said. “And even when we were down, we didn’t panic. We got that late penalty and sunk it and held on those 10 minutes. We only had 13 healthy players, so part of it was the tank was running a bit empty toward the end, but they were composed.”
Understandably exhausted, both emotionally and physically, Fife held her composure until her team was chasing her down after she sealed the win. The senior had felt her play in regulation had lacked and wanted to make up for it in the shootout. She got her wish.
“She deserved it,” Gallegos said. “She came up to me late and told me ‘I got the next shot.’ She’s my senior captain. She deserves this moment and I’m glad she got it.”
The Saints will now hit the road for their quarterfinal match at No. 1 seed Fortuna on Friday at 7 p.m.
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St. Helena boys rally behind Moya’s hat trick
The boys took the field after the girls’ exhilarating win and also made their postseason return a triumphant one.
Playing in their program’s first playoff game since 2009, the sixth-seeded Saints scored four goals in the second half, three courtesy of junior Diego Moya, to beat No. 11 seed Eureka, 4-1.
St. Helena trailed the Loggers (6-10) 1-0 at halftime and had a goal taken away by an offsides call early in the second half. But things began to turn around shortly after the unpopular call when senior Matteo Caldera tied the game in the 48th minute.
From there, the Saints (14-5-1) got into a groove and took a 2-1 lead off of Moya’s first goal in the 53rd minute. His second and third goals came in the 71st and 79th minutes to put the game away.
“It’s always an honor to represent,” Moya said. “It feels amazing to have scored for St. Helena. It truly is a pleasure. This team hasn’t been in playoffs this far in over a decade … I just can’t wait for quarterfinals to show everyone that St. Helena isn’t an underdog and we’re here to get to the final. That’s our goal.”
The Saints entered the postseason losers of three straight but head to the quarterfinals, where they’ll face No. 3 seed International at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco on Saturday at 6 p.m., riding high.
“I think the biggest thing for us was that we had to learn how to play as a unit again,” said St. Helena head coach Ozzie Gallegos. “I think today, we had a tendency to start off slow. But then once we got it going, I felt that we had a stronger mid. They had a real strong attack, but if we controlled the mid and possession I felt we had a shot.”
Calistoga teams advance
The Wildcats’ boys and girls also both advanced in their respective playoff brackets with wins Wednesday night at Middletown High.
The boys, seeded No. 4 in Division 2, beat No. 13 seed Fremont Christian, 5-1.
The Wildcats (13-0-2) got first-half goals from Byron Avina, Alexis Escobedo and Christian Caldera. Isaac Garcia and Jesus Rojas-Mendoza added goals in the second half, as did Fremont Christian (9-10-1) on a penalty kick.
Calistoga will return to Middletown to host No. 5 seed Drew (12-5-1) in a quarterfinal at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Prior to the boys’ win, the Calistoga girls, seeded fourth in the eight-team Division 3 bracket, also needed a penalty shootout to decide their playoff opener against No. 5 seed South Fork.
The contest went to overtime and to the shootout with the score knotted at 0-0. Calistoga (8-4-2) inevitably won the shootout by a tally of 4-2 to advance to the semifinals, where they’ll face No. 1 seed Technology at Rancho Cotate High at 7 p.m. Saturday.