By Ray Hamill — It was a season that almost never happened, but one that ended with the greatest achievement in program history.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Ferndale Wildcats capped a year they won’t easily forget with a first-ever North Coast Section championship in girls soccer, beating close rival St. Bernard’s 1-0 in the Division-3 final at Crusader Field just two weeks after the Crusaders had beaten them to the Little 4 title.
After seeing each of the last two seasons end in NCS semifinal disappointment, including a heartbreaking loss to SB two years ago, this time around the Wildcats were determined to seal the deal and they did so by beating the top two seeds on the road in the past five days.
The Cats had just nine players in the first week of school and would not have been able to field a team if two seniors who had never played the game before had not stepped in to give them a full team.
The Ferndale girls rallied to beat Mendocino 2-1 in Friday’s semifinal and carried that momentum into the final, with sophomore goalkeeper Tinnley Pidgeon setting the tone for the day with an early group text to her coach and teammates.
“This morning at 7 a.m. I got a text from Tinnley Pidgeon saying ‘it’s game day girls,’” head coach Bailey Davy explained. “It felt like they were ready for it. I just think the girls were locked in.”
The only goal of the game came less than five minutes in when Teresa Catana, one of the smallest girls on the field, rose above every one else and headed into the back of the net from a wonderfully-placed Regan Russ corner kick, and the Cats defense held on for the remaining 75 minutes to secure the historic pennant.
After an evenly-matched first half, the Ferndale defense was put under a lot of pressure for the opening 20 minutes of the second half, as the Crusaders mounted attack after attack and the ball barely left that half of the field.
The Cats, however, would keep the SB defense honest with some nice counter attacks, and with Russ and Michaela Ellsmore anchoring a resilient defense they were able to weather the storm.
Russ enjoyed an MVP-caliber senior season at sweeper and was instrumental once again in Wednesday’s win with another composed performance.
Check out Teresa Catana’s championship-winning goal below …
“Regan Russ is a phenomenal player and she makes her job look easy and I know it’s not,” Davy said. “We couldn’t ask for a better leader.”
Ellsmore too was instrumental in keeping the St. Bernard’s attack at bay, particularly early in the second half.
“She really has stepped into a leadership role,” Davy said of Ellsmore. “Her and Regan are a great duo.”
Fullbacks McKenzie Chambers and Clara Christiansen also held their nerve at the back, as did Pidgeon, who comfortably gathered up anything that got through the back line.
The Crusaders to their credit threatened throughout and battled to the end, with several players impressing.
Arabella Maki, Malia Masayos and Alyssa Boham all played well in attack, especially early in the second half when they gave the Ferndale defense all it could handle.
Boham switched back and forth from attack to sweeper with standout Laila Florvilus, who was the home team’s most dangerous player for long spells.
Florvilus was forced to the sideline after taking a hard knock midway through the second half, but would return a few minutes later.
In her absence, teammate Aliyah Vigil did a good job cleaning up some Ferndale counter attacks, as did Boham.
But without starters Madelyn Shanahan and Sahara Tupua, each of whom was in Sacramento for the St. Bernard’s volleyball team’s NorCal tournament matchup, the Crusaders were unable to find the net for the first time in four matchups against Ferndale this season.
Outside midfielder Eliana Sellars once again caused the Ferndale defense problems with some nice footwork, especially late in the first half.
The Crusaders’ best opportunities came after the interval.
“We had no midfield (early) in the second half, which was nerve-wracking,” Davy admitted. “St. Bernard’s was knocking on the door. That was rough. We had no flow.”
The Ferndale players, however, settled down after weathering the storm and the midfielders began to find their feet again, especially outside midfielders Madison Gossi and Olivia Gossi, the latter of whom worked extremely hard for 80 minutes.
Up front for the Wildcats, the ever-dangerous Reaghan Langer was a threat every time they countered, while fellow striker Jayden Murphy grew into the game and was her team’s most dangerous offensive player late in the game.
Center midfielders Gianna Regli and Catana each also made their presence felt and provided a cushion for the strong defensive performance.
“Hats off to Ferndale, they played well,” St. Bernard’s head coach Brian Finck said. “Congratulations to their coaches and players, they came to play today.
“We were missing a couple of leaders today and other teammates stepped up to the challenge.”
Despite Wednesday’s loss, it was a memorable and successful season for the Crusaders.
“I want to congratulate our Lady Crusaders also on a great season,” Brian Finck said. “Any time you make it to the championship game you have had a successful season.”
The breakthrough championship was particularly gratifying for a squad that came into the season with “unfinished business” after last year’s NCS disappointment.
“It blows my mind that the season almost never happened,” Davy said. “(Assistant coach) Brendan (McDonald) said to me as we left the field ‘our unfinished business is finally finished.’”
The Wildcats join Eureka, Fortuna and St. Bernard’s as the only H-DNL schools to have won an NCS girls soccer championship.