SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO – The urgent focus at the start of the game and the calm relief at the end of it was evident for the San Clemente girls soccer team on Saturday morning, Jan. 28, at San Juan Hills High.
After a pair of dissatisfying draws for San Clemente and disappointing loss for San Juan Hills, the Tritons and Stallions both still had the opportunity to dictate the path of the South Coast League championship going into the final week of the regular season, and it was San Clemente that decisively took the wheel.
The Tritons got three goals in three ways in the first half and held San Juan Hills without many meaningful chances in a physically played shutout road victory, 3-0, to move into first place in the South Coast League.
“We needed that,” San Clemente coach Stacey Finnerty said. “We were not going to have a tie again. We came in by bringing it all together. We’ve had different parts of the game we’ve been working on, and we finally said after the last game, that’s it. We’re done. We had stuff in the Aliso game that worked, but it just wasn’t finishing. We weren’t going to wait this time. This was the priority to fix our team and our game, and they did it.”
San Clemente (13-1-6, 3-0-3, 9 points) now controls its own fate in the South Coast League title race with two games remaining. San Juan Hills (12-3-3, 4-3-0, 8 points) only has one game remaining, which means the Stallions would need help from elsewhere to win their third straight league title. The tritons and Stallions split the league title last season.
San Clemente, ranked No. 10 in CIF-SS Division 1 & 2, can clinch the league title outright with one win in its final two games or a San Juan Hills loss. San Clemente can clinch at least a share of the title with just a draw in either game, or if San Juan Hills draws its finale. San Juan Hills, ranked No. 8 in Division 1 & 2, would need to win its finale and have San Clemente lose both games to win the title outright.
San Clemente hosts Tesoro on Tuesday, Jan. 31, and finishes at Capistrano Valley on Thursday, Feb. 2. San Juan Hills finishes at Aliso Niguel on Tuesday, Jan. 31. CIF-SS playoff brackets will be released nexrt Saturday, Feb. 4, with the first round of the playoffs on Feb. 8.
“It’s a crucial game,” Finnerty said of Saturday’s contest. “You want to peak this second round of league heading into playoffs. I would’ve expected maybe next week, and that’ll be the tell, can we come off this high and execute against the next two teams?”
San Clemente turned on the pressure early at San Juan Hills, and the Tritons earned a free kick from 25 yards straight out from the Stallions goal in the 14th minute.
Malia McMahon stepped up for the kick and curled the ball perfectly to the left and past the diving San Juan Hills keeper for the opening goal, 1-0.
“I’ve been practicing that kick for, I don’t know, weeks,” said McMahon, a senior committed to UC Berkeley. “And I was like, this is the moment. We needed one goal to start us, and I followed through with it and it felt right.”
In the 29th minute, sophomore Charlotte Yeskulsky leapt up to head a ball in the San Juan Hills box and took a midair shove in the back for it to earn a penalty kick. Yeskulsky stepped up to the spot to drill it to the right side for a 2-0 San Clemente lead.
Six minutes later, Yeskulsky scored in the run of play with a cracking shot to the right side of the net from 30 yards out for a three-goal Triton lead.
“I noticed they started giving me space in the middle,” Yeskulsky said, “so I just wanted to take it in and see if I could get in there.”
From there, it was all about keeping San Juan Hills at an arm’s length, and San Clemente excelled at that through the majority of the second half.
The Stallions knocked one attempt off the crossbar in the 57th minute, but that was whistled offside, as was a potential San Clemente goal in the 60th minute.
In the 75th minute, San Juan Hills got its best chance on net with a free kick, but Addison Robertson made the dive left to get fingertips on the ball and keep the clean sheet. Robertson, a junior, split the game with senior Rylie McLeish as they have all season.