Although just the No. 5 seed in the North Coast Section Division I boys soccer playoffs, Del Norte has proven to be a tough out. The Warriors have picked up two straight upsets in penalty kicks and extra time over two of the top four teams in the section and find themselves just one more upset away from hoisting an NCS championship trophy.
But Del Norte will be taking the field for today’s championship game in Fortuna against a Huskies squad that the Warriors know well.
The Humboldt-Del Norte League foes have already played each other three times this season. Fortuna won the first meeting 2-1 in Crescent City, but the regular season finale finished in a 2-2 tie in Fortuna. The Warriors and Huskies also faced off in the HDNL Tournament championship game with Fortuna taking a 3-1 victory.
“In the first game, honestly, we weren’t as prepared as we should have been,” said senior defender Johan Ramirez. “In the second game we were ready for them and it was 2-2. In the third game, I’m not making excuses, but they didn’t get us at 100 percent. We had just played the biggest game of our life against Arcata and we only had one day to rest. So we were exhausted.”
In all, Del Norte has gone 0-2-1 against Fortuna this season, but the Warriors feel like they are due for a win.
“I think we are going to come out and show them what we have learned playing in these last couple games,” said senior defender Bryce Howard. “Playing against International I think really got us to play more as a team. Playing against these higher rated teams gets our skills up and we have gotten way more confident. I think everyone feels like we’ve got them in the fourth time playing them. We know how they play. They know how we play too, but I think they will be surprised when they see what we have been through since we played them last.”
The Warriors have certainly been through a lot since they last played Fortuna for an HDN championship just two weekends ago.
Since then, the Warriors have picked up a dramatic 5-4 win in a shootout over defending NCS champion and fourth-seeded Gateway after a scoreless regulation and extra time. Del Norte followed that up with an equally dramatic upset of No. 1 seeded International with a golden goal by Ramirez early in extra time.
“I don’t even remember the goal, I just remember the celebration,” said midfielder Daniel Bertelsen. “After the goal I was just looking around and you could see tears of joy in everyone’s eye.”
“Having traveled seven and a half hours, the joy that that winner brought to them is indescribable,” added Del Norte head coach David Sanyaolu. “You can’t put it in words. I looked over and everybody was on their phone texting — that moment spread around the world in no time.”
Both of Del Norte’s wins so far in the NCS playoffs have come along with seven hour bus trips to San Francisco. Although the length of the drive is less than ideal, the team has taken advantage of the extra time to bond even more tightly.
“They are long trips. It is uncomfortable on the bus, but we have to deal with what we’ve got, and it is honestly an experience,” Howard said. “Just the ride down there with all of these guys is something fun to do. Then when we get down there we get each other up in high spirits and we have been able to go out there and show what Del Norte has. We get it done, and then on the way home we are all celebrating.”
It is an experience that Bertelsen never imagined when he came to Del Norte High School as a foreign exchange student from Denmark.
“For me it is a dream come true. Before I came here I never dreamed that this team could get this far,” Bertelsen said. “San Francisco is a city that you have heard of all over the world, so going down there, playing against Bay Area teams twice, and winning both of them is just unrealistic for me. I am blessed.”
Throughout the regular season, Del Norte was a dominating force and managed to win with multiple goals to spare in all 10 of the team’s regular season victories. That has all changed since the postseason began.
The Warriors started the postseason with an exciting 3-2 win in extra time over Arcata, and Del Norte has now had to continue playing after regulation in three of its last four games.
“Playing close games and going to extra time is expected at this level,” Sanyaolu said. “You are not going to sweep anybody clean. For you to get to this spot, you must have something going for you. It is just a matter of who takes their chances, and it doesn’t hurt to have luck on your side. They say that you make your luck, but whether we make our luck or not, we still want it on our side. We have had times when the opponent hit the bar twice, which could have been the end for us, but luck was on our side and we took our chances when they came.”
Although Del Norte has been continuously playing in tightly contested matches, the players said they feel like the work they have put in has given them an edge in those close games.
“Coach (Scott) Souza makes us do conditioning and drills that get us ready for those moments,” Ramirez said. “It will be the end of practice and we are all tired, and he will just say, ‘one more.’ It is just something that I think we are all used to. When we are on our last breath that is when we give 110 percent because that is when we are feeding off of each other and we are running off of adrenaline.”
The Warriors’ confidence is certainly soaring after picking up wins over exceptional teams. The biggest benefit for Del Norte, however, may be the experience they have gotten from those high level matches.
“We are match hardened now from our two matches in the Bay Area, so we are not the same team that they met earlier in the season,” Sanyaolu said. “We are match hardened, we have confidence, and we have been very good at setting up our attacks correctly and taking our chances.”
But Fortuna has a talented and battle tested squad as well, and they haven’t won three straight Humboldt-Del Norte League Championships by accident.
“After beating International and Gateway, two of the best teams in San Francisco and California, I think we are going to show them how much we have improved, and how much better we are as a team,” Ramirez said. “Obviously they are going to come ready too. It goes both ways.”
After three games played already, there are not many secrets left between the two teams. Sanyaolu said it will just come down to execution, and maybe a little bit of luck.
“We will be more compact than we have been in previous games. We need to be compact and just take our chances when they come,” Sanyaolu said. “Fortuna is a very good attacking side. I think they may even have an edge compared to International with their finishing. If you give Fortuna chances they will bury you. So we are going to limit their chances as much as possible, and on our own side we have to take our chances and seal the game.”
Although it will be a home game for Fortuna, Sanyaolu said he expects to see lots of Warrior fans in the stands for today’s NCS championship game, kicking off at 7 p.m.
“All our fans and parents have always come out to support us,” he said. “We just want to say thank you. From what I hear, Fortuna is going to bombarded with a lot of Del Norte people. We can use that support, so anybody that can make it to Fortuna would be appreciated. We want to fill the stadium and give it the atmosphere of a final.”
A two-hour drive to Fortuna is much easier to make than the seven-hour drive down to the Bay. After the support the Warriors received in Kezar Stadium during the first two rounds, players are confident that the Del Norte faithful will show up in force.
“We were playing down in San Francisco in the Bay Area and we could hear our fans while we were playing,” Bertelsen said. “We have the best fans in the section.”
Reach Micahel Zogg at firstname.lastname@example.org .