By Jeremy Balan
No matter what seed the St. Ignatius boys soccer team takes into the West Catholic Athletic League playoffs, the Wildcats are deadly in the postseason.
It also helps that they have a proven goalkeeper with a knack for making dramatic saves.
A goal from senior midfielder James Smith in the 54th minute gave the Wildcats a 1-0 lead over rival Sacred Heart Cathedral in the first round of the WCAL playoffs and standout SI senior goalkeeper Reuben Young kept the slate clean to seal a SI victory on Saturday at the Crocker Amazon Soccer Fields.
Just like he did against Bellarmine in the league championship last season, Young was the difference late in the game with a hard-charging Irish attack eager to equalize.
In the sixth minute of stoppage time, Sacred Heart senior Gianmichael Santimauro found senior forward Jonathan Rojas unmarked 10 yards from the face of the net.
Rojas took a split second to collect the ball and Young broke toward him. Rojas tried to chip the the ball past Young, but the keeper slid in with his arms extended, blocked the ball with his hands an controlled the the rebound.
“It was just a reaction,” Young said. “We were in this position last year, except it was in the championship against Bellarmine. I don’t know if I was really thinking at all then or now.”
The save was undoubtedly important and preserved the slim Wildcats’ lead, but St. Ignatius head coach John Prior was more impressed with the way Young handled the potential rebound with two Sacred Heart players still on the doorstep.
“What’s amazing about that save is that he saved it and caught it. It’s a top-class play,” Prior said. “What Reuben is doing this season and what he did a lot of last season – he makes incredible saves, but it’s not because he’s just good. He works harder than anybody, every day.”
The last-minute chance was the best scoring opportunity for fourth-seeded Sacred Heart (11-6-3) all game, even though the Irish applied significant pressure on the St. Ignatius back line throughout. The Irish were often in a position to score, but were frequently a step or foot off when trying to connect on passes in attacking positions.
“In the final third, we weren’t as sharp as we have been in other games throughout the season,” said Sacred Heart head coach Jeff Wilson. “We have all the capabilities and I’m sure once we hit the [Central Coast Section playoffs] we’ll make another run at it.”
While the Irish pushed the tempo of the game, the St. Ignatius midfield was patient and calmly distributed the ball when the Wildcats (9-8-4) had possession. That patience paid off with Smith’s score, on a deft touch pass from senior Eli Love in the penalty area.
“We’ve been preaching patience all year and we’ve had it for 70 minutes in a lot of games,” Prior said. “Usually, we’ve ran out of patience or discipline in the last 10. We’ve lost five games that way, but today we finished.”
As anticipated for a playoff game between rivals, the game was physical and contentious, but the game also wasn’t short on controversy.
In the 70th minute, Sacred Heart freshman forward Spencer Johnson appeared to be struck in the head and fouled in the penalty area. Instead of awarding the Irish a penalty kick, the referee ruled a “high kick” infraction and gave Sacred Heart a free kick from about 12 yards away from the net.
The ensuing kick was sent low, directly into the St. Ignatius wall set up at the face of the goal and bounced away from danger.
Moments later, a Sacred Heart defender kicked high and made contact with a St. Ignatius players’ head and the same decision was issued, with no card.
“It’s always at the referee’s discretion, but technically by rule, it’s a high kick and he was consistent,” Wilson said. “You could read it as a [penalty kick], but other things were more worthy of a [penalty kick]. That’s just the way it goes.”
While the Irish still have the CCS playoffs to look forward to, the Wildcats have a fourth-consecutive WCAL tournament title still on the table, with a match against top-seeded St. Francis awaiting on Tuesday.
“Playoff time is once-off and you may plan a little bit differently for a one-off game than a regular season game, because you’re not thinking about a game two days away,” Prior said. “You put all of your eggs in one basket and you hope you get it right, but if it wasn’t for Rueben, we’d still be out there.”