RICHMOND — Roland Hedgpeth, a 658-game winner and 10-time Central Coast Section champion, has experienced just about everything in his 49 seasons as the coach of the Watsonville Wildcatz. But on Saturday, Hedgpeth and Co. will be flying blind — in more ways than one — into their biggest game of the season.
No. 6 Watsonville will play in its first-ever CIF NorCal championship game after edging No. 2 Richmond, 3-2, in a seesaw battle on Thursday night in the East Bay. The 'Catz will travel to San Rafael — their third 100-plus-mile trip of the tournament — to play No. 4 Marin Academy for the Division II championship.
First touch is scheduled for 3 p.m.
Hedgpeth — all 76 years of him — was giddy for the opportunity to reach the peak of a mountain he and the ‘Catz have not yet scaled.
“We’re where we want to be,” Hedgpeth said. “We talked about this all year, and sometimes we weren’t quite going for it. Today we did.”
Watsonville (16-3-5) has never played for a NorCal title — something that did not exist until last season — and it has never played against Marin Academy (17-4-3), a private school of a little more than 400 students.
The ‘Catz — this season, at least — probably haven’t played against a one-two punch like Wildcats seniors Andoni Etcheverry and Kellen Whetstone either. The two have combined for 26 goals and 12 assists this winter.
“The nerves are up, but they don’t know how we play and we don’t know how they play,” said Watsonville junior Alexis Valenzuela. "That's what makes it fun."
Watsonville junior winger Eric Vasquez (12) plays the ball off of Richmond senior midfielder Bryan Maldonado (10) during Thursday's CIF NorCal Division II semifinal in Richmond. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian
Watsonville and Richmond (20-5-2) traded goals, momentum, counterattacks and hard hip checks until junior midfielder Julian Garcia converted a penalty kick in the 68th minute to put the 'Catz up for good.
“We showed a lot of heart,” Valenzuela said. “These guys really want it. I could see it in their faces after the game finished. They’re all happy. Sometimes tears come out, but it’s all worth it in the end.”
Watsonville’s breakneck pace and backbreaking pressure led to both of its goals in the first half. Senior defender Ricardo Alvarado set up senior forward Angel Luis Hernandez with a long assist for the game’s first goal in the 18th minute. And Valenzuela headed in the 'Catz’s second score in the 38th after Eric Vasquez’s cross into the box tangled up a pair of Richmond defenders with senior keeper Alejandro Rodriguez and cleared a scoring path.
Sandwiched between those goals: Richmond senior Bryan Maldonado’s miracle from 45 yards away during the 26th minute.
Watsonville went into the half up 2-1 but the slim lead lasted all of 19 minutes against the Oilers’ quick counterattacks. Senior Saul Carapia combined with sophomore Regilson Villatoro to tie things up, and put the pressure back on the ‘Catz.
They rose to the occasion.
“We’ve been in that situation before,” Hernandez said. “Whenever we’re in that situation, usually coach reminds us that we’re able to come back from it.”
Watsonville senior forward Angel Luis Hernandez (7) wades through the Richmond defense during Thursday night's CIF NorCal Division II semifinal in Richmond. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian
There was no comeback for Richmond. It wasn’t for lack of effort. The Oilers produced a pair of corner kicks in added time to make Watsonville sweat a little more, but the 'Catz defended well enough to survive and advance.
Richmond last year finished runner-up in the CIF NorCal D-II playoffs to another CCS and Pacific Coast Athletic League Gabilan division foe: Alisal. Both NorCal defeats were tough to swallow for the Oilers, North Coast Section Division II runners-up.
“We were fighting hard to the last second in every game,” said Richmond junior Roberto Gonzalez. “We made it this far, but we couldn’t make it to the championship. I’m hoping for better things next year.”
Watsonville looked dead in the water after being ousted 3-0 from the CCS Open Division playoffs by rival Bellarmine in the semifinals. But the Wildcatz bounced back with a stunning 1-0 overtime win over No. 3 Bella Vista in Tuesday’s NorCal D-II quarterfinals, and proved they still have the championship pedigree that helped them win their first league title since the 2014-15 season with Thursday’s win.
“We had to put our emotions to the side (after the Bellarmine loss) and remember what we’re doing it for,” Hernandez said. “We’re doing it for the whole community, for the city and the school. We’re representing the school, and that’s what we want to do. We want to get that trophy back to Watsonville.”