Boys' CCS soccer: Watsonville eliminated by rival Bellarmine — again

Watsonville's Alexis Valenzuela, left, hangs his head as Bellarmine celebrates Mario Barocio's goal during Tuesday night's CCS Open Division soccer game at Emmett M. Geiser Field in Watsonville. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian

WATSONVILLE — Beating 11-time Central Coast Section champion Watsonville in the postseason is no easy task.

Beating the storied Wildcatz at Emmett M. Geiser Field with their title-hungry, soccer-crazed fans behind them is even tougher.

Unless you’re 17-time section champion Bellarmine, that is.

The jeers and whistles from the hundreds sardined into Watsonville’s archaic wooden stands didn’t bother the Bells much. Neither did the chilly 43-degree weather.

It was business as usual for the Bells on Tuesday night, as they once again left the rival Wildcatz pawing at their heads for answers by eliminating them from the CCS Open Division playoffs with a dominant 3-0 win.

“I didn’t feel like we played like we should have played,” said Watsonville senior defender Ricardo Alvarado. “We didn’t play like a team.”

No. 4 Bellarmine (17-2-3) improved its lifetime postseason record against top-seeded Watsonville (14-3-5) to 9-2-1 with the win, and advanced to yet another CCS championship match.

The Bells, ranked No. 10 in the state by MaxPreps, will play No. 7 Branham — a 1-0 winner over Soledad in the other semifinal — at Santa Clara University’s Buck Shaw Stadium on Friday at 7:30 p.m.

The ‘Catz, ranked 31st in the state by MaxPreps, will have to shake off the loss with the California Interscholastic Federation NorCal playoffs starting on Feb. 26.

“We didn’t play with heart, and we got beat,” said Watsonville coach Roland Hedgpeth. “They were beating us to the ball. We weren’t using our technique to bring the ball down. These guys put pressure on us, and we let it get to us.”

Every loss against Bellarmine hurts, but Tuesday’s defeat left a nasty sting. Mostly because Watsonville was never in it.

Bellarmine, the runner-up in the West Catholic Athletic League, struck in the sixth minute, and slammed the door shut with two more goals in the second half. 

Senior forward Blaze Strangio scored the first. Senior defender Max Morris wove through four defenders for the second, and dished a flashy back heel pass to senior midfielder Mario Barocio for the third.

Watsonville and its raucous home crowd fell silent after the early score. The tension among the many blanket-covered spectators only grew after Morris put the Bells up 2-0 with his beauty in the 44th minute.

“Watsonville is such a great city, so many supporters and crowds come out to watch these guys that sometimes you get lost in the moment and you feel like you’re playing 500 people,” said Bellarmine coach Conor Salcido.

On the contrary, it was Watsonville that felt outmanned on its fast-playing home turf. Using its blistering team speed, Bellarmine denied the ‘Catz their usual passing lanes in the middle, and pressured their wingbacks into bad decisions out wide. 

Watsonville was never able to settle into the rhythmic, touch-touch offensive attack that help it win the Pacific Coast Athletic League Gabilan division, the program’s first league title since the 2014-15 season.

It’s defense struggled, too. 

All three of Bellarmine’s goals came on quick counterattacks down Watsonville’s youth-laden left wing. 

“I think this is our best game (we’ve played this season),” Morris said. “We prepared a lot for this game. We knew what we had to do, and we put it away.”

Tuesday was Watsonville’s first loss since Feb. 5, and its second loss of the calendar year. Their first loss of the season was a 3-2 heartbreaker against Bellarmine on Dec. 19.

The Wildcatz were down 2-0 in that game, too, but rallied for a pair of late goals before the Bells scored the game-winner during the final minute. 

Although their first meeting was only a preseason match, it had the feeling of an important playoff tilt between the gatekeepers of the CCS — as every game between Watsonville and Bellarmine does.

“To get a championship, you just know you face Watsonville,” Salcido said. “You treat it like a final. I think all of our guys were expecting this to be the big game of the tournament, and it ended up being that. Now, we’re going to manage our emotions to get ready for the final.”

Watsonville, too, will have to simmer its emotions before it moves on to the NorCal playoffs. Their opponent and the location of the game will be determined after sections in North California participating in regional playoffs complete their postseason on Saturday.

“The team’s, right now, mentally broken down, but we’ll let it go,” Alvarado said. “They know that we have another chance to prove ourselves, and win the NorCal tournament. Tomorrow’s another day. We move on forward and keep on working until the season’s done.”

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