Menlo School and Sacred Heart Prep may be neighbors, but their boys soccer teams aren't very neighborly. The Gators have won five straight West Bay Athletic League crowns and the Knights are simply tired of it.
Thus, every time the rivals meet, there is something to defend and tear down. Wednesday's first of two showdowns between the two was no different.
When Menlo senior John Strong kicked an impressive long-range goal to tie the score late in the match, Sacred Heart head coach Armando del Rio told his team to remain calm in the face of the Knights' sudden momentum.
The Gators responded to their coach's instructions, as seniors Ricky Grau and Will Mishra scored late goals to close out a 3-1 road victory.
"We wanted to make sure that our guys felt they didn't have everything to lose," del Rio said of his calm sideline demeanor. "We believed we were the better team. Our second half was not so dominant until they scored, and then we started to play with a sense of urgency. If we are able to play with a sense of urgency from the get go, I believe in this team's ability."
With the victory, Sacred Heart Prep received some separation over Menlo in the WBAL standings, as the Gators improved to 3-0 in league (4-4-1 overall) and the Knights fell to 2-1 (4-3-1). The win also kept Sacred Heart Prep undefeated (9-0-2) against Menlo since the teams began playing each other in the WBAL in 2009.
The two teams shared a co-championship last season after they tied in the CCS Division III finals, an outcome that noticeably upset the Gators.
"I think it would have been a rivalry game no matter what," Grau said of this year's contest. "But, the tie in the CCS championship last year definitely fueled us for this game. It gave us a lot of drive to win."
Although the Gators lost 11 seniors from last season's squad, the game-time experience that many of the Sacred Heart players received last season helped to handle the pressures of an intense rivalry game.
"There is no question that the experience of even some of our younger players is huge," del Rio said. "When we are under pressure, I think we have key guys that can step up to the plate until things calm down. I think it does come down to experience."
Menlo, meanwhile, graduated 10 and lost five other returning players, reportedly to soccer academies. In addition, senior returnee Matt Myers is sidelined by injury.
The game started with Sacred Heart Prep striking first, as junior Philip Petrakian set up Isaac Polkinhorne, who headed in to give the Gators a 1-0 advantage 10 minutes into the contest.
For the rest of the first half, Sacred Heart Prep did a good job controlling the ball, but was unable to score against a strong Menlo defensive line that was led by senior captain Justin Wang.
Menlo had two free-kick opportunities just outside the box near the end of the first half, but Strong was unable to convert either into goals, kicking one directly at SHP senior keeper Hugo Sanchez, and the other right into the Gators' defensive wall in front of the goal.
"The boys were aware of the history we have with (Sacred Heart) and sometimes that gets into the kids heads. So I think we started a little flat," Menlo second-year head coach Marc Kerrest said. "At halftime, I told them that we needed to play harder and we had to play with some confidence. I think we did that in the second half."
The second half started with Menlo attacking with more energy, and controlling the ball much more than it did in the first half.
Menlo finally got on the board with 21 minutes left in the game, as Strong, in his fourth year, connected on his long-range goal off a pass from sophomore Will Chisholm.
"Having them tie us was obviously not something we wanted," Polkinhorne said. "But, anytime a team equalizes the game, it always gives me a little more fire. So I think it did actually benefit us that they scored."
The Gators retook the lead eight minutes later with another beautiful cross in front of the net. Petrakian again provided the pass, and Grau kicked home the goal to put the Gators on top 2-1.
"I just needed to be there," Grau said with a chuckle. "It was such a great cross there was no way anybody could have missed that."
The Gators added one more insurance goal with nine minutes left in the game, as Mishra scored on a penalty kick that was set up by a handball in the box by Menlo sophomore Matt Joss.
The win moved the Gators to 3-1 since integrating Segre, Grau, Cam Chapman and Miguel Mendoza back from the football team that extended its season by reach a state championship game. Still, the Gators felt they had a lot of room for improvement moving forward in their WBAL schedule.
"This definitely wasn't our best game," said Grau, still sporting a brace on the left hand he broke at the end of the football season. "We can improve possession wise. We have a lot of work to do before the end of the season. Hopefully, we'll be able to go as far as last season."
On the Knights' side, Kerrest was proud of the way his boys competed, but was still very dissatisfied by the final outcome of the contest.
"Given how young both teams are, I think those are impressive performances for both teams," Kerrest said. "The result is disappointing because there were times it didn't look like they were the better side."
Looking ahead to the Feb. 7 rematch between the two Atherton neighbors, Strong was optimistic about the Knights' chances of finally securing a win against Sacred Heart.
"We'll see how the season takes us, but I think we'll be ready for them," Strong said. "We might be able to put up a few goals next time."
Elsewhere in the WBAL, host Priory dropped a 4-2 decision to Harker. Austin Mirabella scored both goals for the Panthers (1-1, 3-3-1), the first unassisted and the second assisted by Bailey Marshek.
In the PAL Bay Division, Menlo-Atherton saw its unbeaten season end in a 4-0 loss to host Half Moon Bay. The Cougars grabbed a 2-0 halftime lead and surged ahead after intermission while dropping the Bears to 2-1 in league (5-2 overall).
In the SCVAL De Anza Division, Palo Alto battled to a scoreless deadlock with host Saratoga. It was the Vikings' (1-0-2, 5-3-3) second straight tie. Paly's defense was led by keeper Tony Maharaj, inside backs Jack Brooks and Steven Blatman along with outside back Thomas Crouch and Neal Biswah.
The Milpitas at Gunn match was not reported.
Pinewood sophomore Chloe Eackles produced 14 points, 10 rebounds, five steals and three assists to power the Panthers to an 80-34 romp over host Notre Dame-San Jose in a WBAL Foothill Division opener.
Pinewood (1-0, 13-1) took care of things early by outscoring the Regents, 26-3, in the first quarter. Junior Marissa Hing added 11 points and five assists with freshman Erin Poindexter-McHan contributing 10 points. Senior Leeana Bade added nine points and six rebounds for Pinewood, which had all 12 players score.
In Atherton, Sacred Heart Prep opened its WBAL Foothill Division season with a 47-46 win over visiting Mercy-San Francisco. Meghan Holland paced the Gators (1-0, 10-5) with 22 points, 12 coming on 3-pointers, with Caroline Cummings adding nine points.
In the PAL South Division, Menlo-Atherton played without its only senior, Emma Heath, and obviously missed their leader the Bears suffered their first league loss, 45-30, to visiting Mills.
Heath suffered a concussion in Saturday's win over Sacred Heart Prep and is sidelined until at least next week. Against Mills, the Bears (2-1, 10-4) saw their four-game win streak end as the Vikings led early in the game.
M-A, however, came back to take the lead early in the second quarter with Naomi Baer scoring five of her 13 points. The game remained close through the third, but the deeper Mills team pulled away from the injury depleted Bears in the fourth.
Palo Alto suffered its first loss of the SCVAL De Anza Division season, 68-60, to host Los Altos. Noah Phillips led the Vikings (2-1, 7-7) with 17 points while Kevin Mullin added 15.
In the SCVAL El Camino Division, Gunn (1-2, 9-5) dropped a 73-58 decision to host Santa Clara despite 19 points from Chris Russell.
Gunn bolted to an early lead and held on for a 2-1 victory over host Milpitas in SCVAL El Camino Division action. Natalie Perreault gave the Titans (1-1-1, 4-2-2) a 1-0 lead off an assist by Megan Kuhnle. Gunn made it 2-0 when Caroline Anderson sent a shot into the top right corner of the net.
In SCVAL De Anza Division action, host Palo Alto (2-0-1, 5-2-2) posted a 3-0 victory over Saratoga.
The Vikings grabbed a 1-0 lead following a free kick outside the 18-yard box by Sunny Lyu to Jacey Pederson, who finished. Pederson scored again just before halftime while Julia Kwasnick controlled a corner kick by Lyu in the second half and scored.
Dhara Yu was solid in the cage for Paly while freshmen Nika Woodfill and Alison Lu had solid efforts along with junior Katie Foug and Lena Chang.