By Ray Hamill — Local fans could not have asked for a better conclusion to the 2021 high school girls soccer season.
On Saturday afternoon, Big 5 rivals Arcata and Eureka will meet once again to decide this year’s North Coast Section Division-I championship, renewing a rivalry as good as any in H-DNL sports right now.
This is the third straight postseason the two teams have faced off, with Eureka getting the better of exchanges in the 2018 championship game and Arcata responding a year later to knock off the Loggers in an overtime semifinal.
This year the Tigers will be favored.
The Big 5 champs have lost just once all season and have lived up to their No. 1 seeding by steamrolling their way to the championship game with an 8-0 win over St. Helena and a 5-0 win over Credo.
An experienced Arcata team also has won two of the three meetings with the Loggers this fall, with the two teams tying in the other.
“The first thing about Arcata is they have a very experienced roster, with a lot of senior and junior talent and a lot of leadership,” Eureka head coach Tommy Learmouth said. “And just the continuity they have.”
It starts with goalkeeper Seri Welsh and works its way up the field.
The Tigers have a particularly potent midfield of Tildy and Annie Macdonald, Gracie Townsend and Zoe Macknicki, who consistently feed the dangerous attacking duo of Kyla Berman and Alia Prentiss.
Eureka, meanwhile, has a younger roster with just one senior, but it’s a team that has come together quickly this year and one that is playing its best soccer of the season at an opportune time.
“We knew there were going to be growing pains with such a young team,” Learmouth said. “But the big thing about this team is they have been resilient. When a result doesn’t go our way they come back the next day ready to go.”
There is certainly no lack of talent on this roster, which is arguably the deepest in the H-DNL and includes a sophomore class that has a huge upside.
Second-year players Ella Tollefson, Maia Hales and Lila Ekholdt have been as good as anybody on the North Coast all season, while teammates Angelina Conant, Lorena Hernandez and Kaitlin Giacone have all been consistent contributors down the stretch, among many others, including juniors Claire Maples and Kira Morris.
The rivalry has also provided some fantastic games over the past few years, and Arcata head coach Patrick Stranahan likens it to a famous English Premier League rivalry.
“Neither team wants to give anything up to the other,” he said. “It’s always been that way and hopefully always will be. It’s a sort of Liverpool/Man United thing if you will.”
Adding to the occasion of course is the fact there is a rare Section title on the line in this meeting.
Arcata is looking for a first-ever NCS championship in the sport, while the Loggers are looking for their second after winning in 2018.
“They’re excited to be at this point of the season, with that one game left and knowing that this is as far as you can go,” Learmouth said of his players.
Eureka defeated Fortuna 3-0 in the quarterfinal and followed that with a 3-1 at Roseland Prep in Wednesday’s semifinal.
The coaching this year also has played a big role in both teams’ success and the two head coaches arguably have done their best job yet in charge of their respective teams this year.
Stranahan is the more experienced of the two and has his roster playing as well as ever and on the doorstep of an historic achievement for the school.
Learmouth is in just his third season in charge but has done a good job coaching his players up this season and getting the most of a young roster that continues to improve.
Saturday’s game is set for 2 p.m. at McKinleyville High School.
If the teams are tied after regulation, two 10 minute periods of overtime will follow, and then a penalty shootout, if necessary.