By Ray Hamill — You get the feeling that Saturday’s epic ending to the 2021 high school girls soccer season is really just the beginning for this Eureka team.
Playing against their biggest rivals on the biggest stage of all, the young Loggers gave a clutch performance on the way to securing the program’s second North Coast Section championship in four years.
It wasn’t easy against a more experienced Arcata team that had beaten Eureka twice this season on the way to a league title, and neither team was able to break the deadlock for over 100 minutes of regulation and overtime.
The game then went to a penalty shootout and it was the young Loggers who came up clutch, with three sophomores and a freshman showing no nerves and nailing their penalties to give their team a 4-3 victory in front of a large, loud and enthusiastic crowd at Mack High.
Junior goalkeeper Claire Maples added a terrific save on one of the Arcata penalties in her first-ever penalty shootout.
While the shootout is a cruel way to decide the championship, the game itself was a highly-entertaining battle with some outstanding defense and goalkeeping by both teams and little to separate either team.
“It was a classic battle between two teams where nobody wanted to give an inch,” Eureka head coach Tommy Learmouth said. “Both teams fought hard.”
The loss was obviously a tough one for the Tigers, who played well throughout.
“I’m super proud of my girls,” head coach Patrick Stranahan said. “Everything we worked on in practice we employed in the game. They fought from whistle to whistle and I couldn’t have asked for anything more from them.”
The game was evenly matched for large periods, with the Tigers patient in their buildup and the Loggers looking dangerous on the counter attack.
Both goalkeepers, however, were up to the task and sure-handed throughout, including Arcata senior Seri Welsh, who continues to read the game to near perfection and always seems to time her runs perfectly.
A fantastic sophomore class led the way again for the Loggers, with Ella Tollefson, Maia Hales and Kaitlin Giacone all nailing their kicks at the end, along with freshman Lorena Hernandez.
Giacone’s successful kick sealed the win and sparked wild celebrations.
“It feels good being a young team and with how they had to fight all year,” said Learmouth, whose team has improved significantly since the opening game. “We tell them it’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish.”
The future does indeed look bright for this team, which has seen a big turnover in personnel the past two seasons and is a very different group to the squad that won the NCS three years ago.
This year’s roster features only one senior, Payton Goodman, who is the only player to also feature on the 2018 Eureka NCS championship team.
She closes out her high school career with two section medals in the sport and is the only Eureka player to ever achieve that.
Goodman anchored the center of defense along with Hales, who was outstanding once again and was arguably the team’s MVP this season.
A switch in defensive formation for the playoffs also paid big dividends for Eureka, with Learmouth changing from a three-player back line to four, in large part to counter a very dangerous Arcata attack.
Fullbacks Paige Rodgers and Giacone also were instrumental in Saturday’s clean sheet and the team’s disciplined defensive performance.
Hernandez has also played a huge role for the team down the stretch, raising the level of her game over the past five games and seeing a lot more playing time because of it, while the tireless Angelina Conant and Jordan Brown also played pivotal roles in midfield.
“Lila Ekholdt probably played her best game of the year,” Learmouth added.
According to the head coach, it was the team’s willingness to learn and grow all season that led to the championship.
“Even when we would lose games, they would show up the next day and they would be refocused,” he said. “They would say ‘let’s focus on what we did wrong and get better.’
“They battled through adversity and they battled their hearts out, and today in the biggest game of the year they came out and were successful.”
Saturday’s loss was just the second all season for the Arcata girls.
But it certainly wasn’t because of a lack of effort.
“The team ran themselves into the ground,” Stranahan said. “They gave everything they had. They played their hearts out.”
Despite the loss, the season was still a successful one for the Tigers, who won their first league title in five years.
“We had a great season,” the coach added. “We were first in league. There’s nothing to be ashamed about.”
“Hats off to Arcata, the players, coaches and fans,” Learmouth said. “It was a classic battle.”