FORTUNA — Since the North Coast Section Division I Playoffs began the Del Norte boys soccer team has found itself in incredibly exciting matches in round after round. The Warriors continued that trend in an NCS Championship contest against Humboldt-Del Norte League foe Fortuna, going into extra time for the third straight game.
Fortune favored the home team on Saturday in Fortuna, however, as the Huskies scored a golden goal with just two minutes remaining in extra time to avoid penalty kicks and secure their second NCS championship in three years with a 3-2 win over Del Norte.
“Kudos to my boys for the golly ride — it has been a hell of a ride actually,” said Del Norte head coach David Sanyaolu. “I can’t be more proud of them for what they showed tonight. I have never seen the kind of heart that my boys showed today with their grit and determination — they laid it out there. I thought we had it, but the game has to end before you can celebrate.”
In the Warriors’ previous two games they were the ones left celebrating at the end of dramatic matches, but on Saturday Del Norte ended up on the other side of the score.
“I told them what I have always told them, ‘That I am proud of them.’ There were tears and everything,” Sanyaolu said. “They are young and this will always hit them hard, but I just went to each of them, hugged them, encouraged them and appreciated them for what they have done this year.
“Our fans were also there for us too. It was an amazing atmosphere, so I want to give a shout out to everyone that came, and thanks for all the support. I wish the outcome could have been different, but it is what it is.”
The NCS championship match was the fourth and final meeting of the season between the Warriors and Huskies this season. Although Del Norte was never able to top the three-time defending HDN champions, Sanyaolu said he thought Saturday’s effort was the best the Warriors have given against Fortuna yet.
“We matched them today. They were still an offensive threat, but defensively we had them,” Sanyaolu said. “I said that the key to the game for us was to be compact and to take our chances and we did that. Our two goals we just found opportunities and we took them.”
Fortuna seemed to hold an edge in possession throughout most of the game, but Del Norte’s stalwart defense kept the Huskies from generating many high quality scoring opportunities. Meanwhile the Warriors were able to wrestle away possession long enough to pressure the Huskies’ goal as well throughout 98 minutes of play.
“We matched them today,” Sanyaolu said. “They were still an offensive threat, but defensively we had them. I said that the key to the game for us was to be compact and to take our chances and we did that. Our two goals we just found opportunities and we took them.”
Both teams generated several scoring opportunities in the early going until Del Norte broke the scoreless tie in the 27th minute.
Warrior keeper Ro-tah Shorty blocked a hard shot from deep inside the Del Norte 18-yard box to snuff out a Fortuna threat then got the counterattack going by sending the ball wide left.
Jared Castro dribbled the ball to the Huskies’ endline on the left side of the goal and fired a pass backwards in front of the goal. Del Norte’s Daniel Bertelsen was in position to fire a one-touch shot hard into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead that sent the Warrior faithful into a frenzy.
The Warriors held onto their slim lead for a little over 30 minutes of play, but midway through the second half the Fortuna offense was finally able to break up the clean sheet. The Huskies managed to score on a cross pass into the box. Shorty and the Fortuna forward got to the ball at almost the same time, but the Husky’s header managed to push the ball into the net for a 1-1 tie.
The Warriors never hung their heads, however, and managed to retake the lead 13 minutes later.
Senior defender Vova Sherman got to an attempted clearance by the Fortuna defense and booted the ball back into the Huskies’ 18 yard box. Bertelsen managed to get his head on Sherman’s pass and it skipped backward and started rolling towards the goal.
The Fortuna keeper came charging out to stop the ball, but freshman forward Chase Gardner was half a step faster and tapped the ball into the net for a 2-1 lead with just seven minutes left in regulation.
The Warriors’ second lead of the night was short-lived, however. Fortuna quickly found an equalizer with a hard low shot from the left into the opposite side post by former Warrior and current Fortuna senior Aaron Mignon to tie the game at 2-2 and keep the Huskies’ title chances alive.
“I just wish that we could have closed up a little bit more when we went ahead 2-1, but we were still being adventurous,” Sanyaolu said. “I was shouting, ‘Defense, defense,’ but in the noise and everything I guess my boys didn’t really hear me. It is what it is though. It was a great game.”
Extra time was played in the golden goal format, in which the first score in the period ends the game. It was the third straight game that Del Norte has played extra time and the fourth time in the Warriors’ five postseason games.
Del Norte managed to make the plays that it needed to push it over the top in the first three extra time contests. The Warriors had several near-misses in extra time of the NCS championship game as well, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
“I thought we had a chance to score (in extra time),” Sanyaolu said. “We had a couple shots that could have maybe gone in if they were just a few inches down, but it just wasn’t our day. But extra time just showed that my boys will always be in it until the end.”
The first of two 10-minute extra time periods finished scoreless, and neither team was able to push in a goal in the early going of the second period either. But with just two minutes remaining before going to a penalty kick shootout, Fortuna finally took its first lead of the night.
The Huskies sent a cross pass into the box with several players from both teams around the ball. The ball bounced around several times in the box as a couple shots by Fortuna were stymied by the Del Norte defense, but the Huskies also snuffed out a pair of attempted clearances by the Warriors. Eventually a Fortuna forward managed to run onto the ball and get off a clean shot to secure the win.
In the end, Del Norte was left wondering what might have been.
“I think we will always rue that first equalizer. It was one of those lucky breaks that I talked about before the game, and it wasn’t ours today,” Sanyaolu said. “But Fortuna knows that they met a team they will never forget. We are not just minced meat like we have been previously for them. I can’t really ask any more from my boys. They put everything that they had into it. But for a few lucky breaks here or there we could have clinched it, but Fortuna is a great team. They will always come at you, and it is never over until it is over — that showed today.”
Although the season ended one win short of the Warriors’ ultimate goal of an NCS championship, Del Norte has already exceeded all expectations this year as it has nearly completely rewitten the school record books through the most successful boys soccer season that Del Norte has ever had.
The Warriors wrapped up the season with a school record 13 wins after going 13-3-3. All three of Del Norte’s losses came at the hands of Fortuna.
Del Norte also set a school record for HDN wins in the regular season with 10 after a school best 10-1-3 HDN record.
During the postseason the Warriors continued to write history. As the No. 5 seeded team in the tournament, Del Norte received the school’s first ever bye in the NCS playoffs, which allowed it to advance into the quarterfinals for the first time in school history.
In the quarterfinals, the Warriors picked up Del Norte’s first ever NCS victory with a penalty kick shootout win over Gateway. Del Norte then went on to win its first ever NCS semifinal match to advance to the championship game for the first time ever.
“We have embraced the philosophy of playing simple soccer with a good defense in mind, and taking your chances when they come. The season has been a success,” Sanyaolu said. “My boys realize that playing simple progressive soccer with a mind towards getting a goal yields rewards, and I am sure that they saw that this season. It is still a work in progress, but I am sure that we are going to win a title in the next few years, if not next year.”
Del Norte will be losing a talented senior class after this season, but the Warriors will bring back about half of its starters for next season along with a strong group of up and coming youngsters.
“Even the guys that didn’t play — they know the expectation and they see what we want from them,” Sanyaolu said. “Hopefully next year they can be more active and buy into the philosophy that we are trying to establish with Del Norte soccer. We want to continue to play with the same system and then just plug people into that system. That way we are not taking a step backwards in the near future and we can be consistently good like Fortuna and always play in the postseason and be a threat.”
Although the future looked bright for Del Norte soccer, Sanyaolu said this fall has been a special experience for everyone involved.
“I want to give a shout out to everybody that came, from our superintendent, athletic director, principal, parents and everybody else,” Sanyaolu said. “I also want to thank my assistant coach (Scott) Souza and the boys. It has been a blessing to have everybody, and I look forward to having more success with the team next year and in subsequent years.”
Reach Michael Zogg at firstname.lastname@example.org .