By Matthew Snyder
As he stood beneath the lights of Kezar Stadium, doused in a mixture of Gatorade and water his team had just dumped on him, Leadership High School head boys soccer coach Greg Perieff basked in the afterglow of achieving a season-long goal.
With a 2-1 win over Drew School in Thursday’s Bay Counties League Central championship game, Leadership won its first boys soccer championship in the charter school’s 15-year history.
“I’m feeling fantastic right now,” Perieff said. “It’s been a long, long season with a lot of trials and tribulations. At the very beginning, we saw the talent we had and we knew that we were going to try and make it here. This is where we wanted to be.”
Sensational during the fourth-seeded Griffins’ (5-5-3) improbable run to the championship – which included a 4-3 overtime upset of top-seeded Gateway in the semifinals on Tuesday – senior midfielder Kevin Flores started the Griffins off with a bang against the Dragons.
Just three minutes into the game, Flores stole possession in midfield and launched a breathtaking individual run, weaving throughout Drew’s midfield and defense before scoring with the outside of his right foot, past outstretched Drew goalkeeper Alexander Williams.
“I tried to surprise them,” Flores said. “I figured they wouldn’t expect it in the beginning, so I just tried giving it all in the beginning.”
Drew (11-7-1) responded well and immediately pressed for an equalizer through standout junior forward Richard Leon, who had at least one Leadership defender, and often two, marking him at all times.
In the 19th minute, Drew junior midfielder Zachary Bauke intercepted a wayward pass just above the halfway line and played a pass in behind the Leadership defense for Leon, who had peeled off his man on the left wing.
Leon raced to the pass and got to it before onrushing Griffins goalkeeper David Venegas. As Venegas slid to knock the ball out of bounds, Leon struck a left-footed shot from 25 yards out that bounded into the center of goal, knotting the game up at 1-1.
Drew fed off the goal’s momentum, but endured heartbreak just eight minutes later.
Off a Leadership corner kick, Flores rose highest and directed a header down toward the goal.
Drew defender Elias Braunstein, standing next to the right goalpost, was judged by the referee to have touched Flores’s header with his left hand before Williams could collect it.
Citing the denial of a clear goal-scoring chance, the referee issued a red card to Braunstein, awarded Leadership a penalty kick and forced the Dragons to play a man down for the rest of the game.
Senior Griffin Eduardo Sanchez converted the spot kick with a confident right-footed shot past Williams’s left and gave Leadership a 2-1 lead.
Braunstein was disconsolate as he left the field and told Drew head coach Daniel Philpot that he flinched to move for the ball, but did not touch it.
“Leadership played well and I want to give a lot of respect to what [they were] able to do in these last couple of games,” Philpot said. “Not taking anything away from them, but it’s frustrating when it feels like a ref’s call, or non-call, wrecks the game.”
Philpot praised his team’s response to playing the last 53 minutes of the game with a numerical disadvantage.
“They fought their asses off,” Philpot said. “They fought the entire time like they could win it. Maybe we should’ve put one in, but they felt cheated. They feel cheated.”
Drew had two very good chances to tie up the game in the second half – the best of which came in the 45th minute. Leon sent a dangerous pass across the face of Leadership’s goal, but sophomore Matthew Pierno’s left-footed stab went just over the crossbar.
After Leadership’s Wednesday practice, Perieff told his team that he wanted them to dress up for school on Thursday, to show pride in their accomplishment. Flores said that the “professional” approach worked, helping the Griffins focus before the game.
“We’re trying to change our image as a school and just as a team. We want people to respect us,” Perieff said. “In order to do that, we felt like we had to get our guys dressed up, taking it seriously and being responsible. And look at the result tonight.”