Every day, every game, every practice was motivated by the need to be better than it was the previous day.
On Friday night, West Bay Athletic League champion Sacred Heart Prep (18-0-2) meets West Catholic Athletic champion Bellarmine (16-2-4) at Santa Clara's iconic Buck Shaw Stadium for the championship of the Central Coast Section Open Division.
By definition, SHP and Bellarmine are the top two teams in the section. The Bells have won 18 CCS titles and are the defending Open champs.
Sacred Heart Prep has won seven CCS fall titles and shared the 2013 Division III winter title with Menlo. The Gators are appearing in their first championship match at any level above D-3.
"Last year we thought we should have made Open," Sacred Heart Prep goalie Hank Twichell said. "This year we wanted to capitalize on every opportunity abnd set up a schedule with all 'A' league teams and we maxed on points."
After losing its final match of last season, Gators coach Guillermo Talancon gathered his juniors together and told them they would get another chance to be in the same situation this year.
That was the moment SHP dedicated itself to doing everything possible to put itself in position for a CCS championship.
"I'm confident in all the players around me that when they get the ball they can do something with it," said senior Liam Johnson, who scored a goal and recorded an assist in SHP's 4-0 victory over Peninsula Athletic League champion Menlo-Atherton in the semifinals earlier this week.
Kyle Nilsson, Alex Moretti and Alexi Stavropoulos also scored for the fourth-seeded Gators.
"We've never been this far as a program," Johnson said. "We just want to make it as far as we can go."
SHP made it this far because of an air-tight defense in front of the hard-working Twichell.
"Our back three are the best in our league and probably in the section," Twichell said. "Billy (Barnds) on teh right is the strongest player I know. Alex Moretti and Lance (Chou) are super solid. Keivin Box has always been our leader. He motivates us. He consistently makes plays every day and is a rock in the back.
"I try to play simple and rely on my team in front of me to do their jobs."
Sacred Heart Prep owns a goal differential of 107-10 on the season, likely one of the largest, if not the largest, margins in the section. Bellarmine (17-3-2) differential is 58-17.
No. 8 Menlo-Atherton (10-6-5) played a solid first half on the heels of its upset victory over Sacred Heart Cathedral last week and kept pressure on the Gators.
Johnson gave SHP the early lead and then helped break the game open, assisting the goal by Nilsson ahead of Moretti's key goal. Ethan Vegthe recorded his second assist of the day on the play.
"M-A came out hard in the first half and then we worked out how to attack them," Johnson said.
The Gunn boys' soccer team became the latest to upset a top seed and this time the Titans are rewarded with a spot in the championship match on Saturday against Mitty.
The Titans and host Salinas played to a 2-2 draw and then Gunn converted its penalty kicks 4-2 to advance out of the semifinals.
Gunn and Salinas engaged in a fast-paced game and in front of a lively crowd. The Titans scored first when James Hahn tapped in a corner kick from Nickolas Romero. Salinas rallied to tie the game before the end of the first half.
Gunn (17-1-2) came out strong in the second half and went ahead 2-1 after centerback Alexis Bromberg placed a header high into the back of the net from a free kick by Hahn.
Both teams missed scoring opportunities throughout second half until Salinas scored the tying goal with a rocket shot into the net from the top of the box. The score remained tied 2-2 after regulation and overtime.
Gunn goalkeeper Pierre Napaa recorded two diving saves in the penalty kick shootout when he stopped the Cowboys' second and fourth shots.
Romero, the Titans' fourth player, placed his penalty kick far right into the goal to clinch it. Napaa and Romero were both swamped by a happy group of teammates.
Divisions III and IV
The Sacred Heart Prep girls also went on the road and successfully confronted a top seed, beating Carmel 4-0 to reach the title match of Division IV. The Gators are the defending D-4 champion, beating Priory in overtime.
The Menlo School girls also used an upset of the top seed to spring into the title match of Division III. The Knights beat host Palo Alto 1-0 on Wednesday on a goal by Carly Retterer in the 78th minute.
The Vikings finished 7-7-7 overall.
Junior Fiona Perkocha scored an unassisted goal for SHP in the 30th minute to end a scoreless battle.
Junior Megan Tinsley gave SHP a 2-0 lead early in the second half, scoring with an assist from freshman Iris O'Connor.
The Gators put the match away with goals from juniors Juliana Rosen and Lilly Lynch. Sophomore Hadley Twichell added an assist.
In other CCS matches, the Gunn girls (15-4-2) fell to host Sobrato 2-0 and the Menlo boys (15-3-4) dropped a 2-1 decision to visiting St. Francis.
The Sacred Heart girls (9-6-6) face Salinas (12-5-4) and the Menlo girls (11-4-7) meet Burlingame (11-4-6), also on Saturday.
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