SAN RAFAEL — Ninety-five combined seasons of coaching — 51 from Watsonville High’s sideline and 44 from Marin Academy’s — could not believe the amount of heartbreak, happiness, mayhem and confusion that was crammed into what seemed like less than 30 seconds.
Neither could any of the players involved.
“It was crazy,” said Watsonville junior keeper Daniel Medina.
“That was chaos,” said Marin Academy sophomore midfielder Adrian Vasquez.
It was the makings of a breathtaking end to a classic that no one in attendance will ever forget — although their recollection of the final exchange might differ.
Two goals in a matter of moments — the second more inconceivable than the first — left one team jumping and screaming, and celebrating its first-ever CIF NorCal championship.
The other team fell to the drizzle-soaked turf with tears in their eyes, pain in their chests and bewilderment in their minds.
The Wildcatz were the latter.
Watsonville’s stellar season came to an end in heart-wrenching fashion, as No. 4 Marin Academy stunned the No. 6-seeded ‘Catz, 2-1, for the Division II title on a last-second goal mere moments after they found an equalizer on the other end.
Watsonville (16-4-5) — like the hundreds in attendance standing a few feet away from Marin Academy’s (18-4-3) diminutive field — struggled to process what had just happened after the final whistle blew.
Some players where fuming at a pair of no calls, and others were wondering how their championship hopes had come and gone in a blink of an eye.
“Everything happened so fast,” said Watsonville junior midfielder Julian Garcia. “It was a tough game. There’s always a winner and a loser. Unfortunately, we were on the losing side today.”
Watsonville sophomore Jael Leal (9) fights with Marin Academy junior Sean Neville (15) for the ball during Saturday's CIF NorCal Division II final in San Rafael. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian
Watsonville surrendered a goal seven minutes in, and fired away until it found the equalizer it needed 73 minutes later on an improbable rebound from junior forward Eric Vasquez in added time.
Vasquez sped down the far sideline in jubilation with his teammates following close and slid into the turf for a celebratory dogpile. But the smiles and cheer were temporary. The ‘Catz were in trouble before they were done rubbing off the wet rubber turf pellets from their arms and legs.
In a flash, Marin Academy was on the other end, and before they knew it Adrian Vasquez scored a miracle goal and was being mobbed by dozens of his classmates, who raced out to the field while Watsonville's players dropped to the turf in disbelief.
“That was by far the best moment of my life,” Adrian Vasquez said.
Watsonville said it should have never happened.
Medina, who was injured during scrum that produced the game-winning goal, said a Marin Academy player kicked the ball out of his hands — an illegal play — and other players and coaches were steaming that an offside call from the linesman was waived off by the lead official.
The goal stood.
And the ‘Catz fell.
“We probably would have beat them [in overtime],” Eric Vasquez said. “We had the momentum. We were attacking. They just got a couple of chances and capitalized. We were the better team. We had more passion.”
Watsonville ends its season with one banner, a Pacific Coast Athletic League Gabilan division title — its first league title since the 2014-15 season. It also completed the year ranked 24th in the state by MaxPreps.
“I just like the way they showed (in) this game,” said Watsonville coach Roland Hedgpeth. “In my heart, they won.”
Saturday’s 108-mile trek to San Rafael was Watsonville’s third long-distance road trip of the state tournament. The ‘Catz, semifinalists in the Central Coast Section Open Division, drove nearly 200 miles to Orangevale — 20 miles east of Sacramento — for the quarterfinals, and made a 100-mile trip to Richmond in the semis. They picked up upset wins over No. 3 Bella Vista and No. 2 Richmond on the way to Saturday’s final.
Marin Academy, meanwhile, hosted its third straight NorCal playoff game. The Wildcats, North Coast Section Division IV champions, beat No. 5 Livingston and No. 8 Prospect on their unusually short field, which tightened Saturday’s action and made some segments feel like an indoor soccer game.
Both teams found enough room to create some excitement despite the tiny pitch.
Watsonville sophomore Jael Leal (9) holds off Marin Academy senior Tucker Grooms (12) during Saturday's CIF NorCal Division II final in San Rafael. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian
Led by its duo of NCAA Division I-bound players, Andoni Etcheverry (Santa Clara) and Eric Sachleben (Dartmouth), Marin Academy probed the middle of Watsonville's defense early and often. Senior midfielder Giancarlo De Petris rewarded his team’s aggressiveness in the seventh minute with a beautiful finish through traffic off an assist from junior forward Eli Swagel.
Watsonville did well to bounce back from its early miscue, and dictated the pace for the majority of the final 40 minutes thanks to Garcia and senior Ricardo Alvarado, who moved up from the defense to midfield as the ‘Catz pushed for an equalizer. The suffocating confines, however, limited their opportunities on the ground, and sent them to the air.
Marin Academy defended the long ball well enough despite having a pair of freshman defenders in Ethan Carr and Aiden Aley that were no taller than 5-foot-1 and weighed no more than 220 pounds combined.
Watsonville finished with only two more shots on goal (6-4) than Marin Academy despite dominating the possession for the better part of the second half.
The frustrations boiled over for desperate Watsonville down the stretch, as two players were given yellow cards following rough tackles, including one that drew blood from the left eyebrow of Marin Academy junior Sean Neville. Another Watsonville player on the bench was hit with a red and forced to watch the action from the stands.
The desperation turned into the scoring opportunity the ‘Catz needed with less than a minute left to play. Alvarado’s drive into the heart of the Marin Academy defense created a mess in front of the Wildcats’ net, and Eric Vasquez took advantage of the disarray with the game-tying goal.
For a moment, Watsonville’s championship hopes had new life.
The moment didn’t last long.
“You give up a goal like that and that’s pretty much sealed fate,” said Marin Academy coach Josh Kalkstein. “To have the mental strength to come back, it’s just unreal. It set an amazing stage. I feel for Watsonville. Obviously, I’m happy our boys were able to gut that out, but that’s a tough game that somebody had to lose. It was unbelievably dramatic for a high school final.”
Watsonville and Marin Academy had never met before Saturday’s final, but the Northern California powers could be seeing more of each other in the near future in the CIF NorCal tournament, which started last winter.
Marin Academy has won an NCS final in nine of the last 13 years under Kalkstein, who has coached the boys and girls at the small private school of 430 students in San Rafael for the past 22 seasons. The Wildcats have also advanced to a section final in 15 of the last 19 seasons.
Watsonville, an 11-time CCS champion, made it to five section finals from 2012-2017, and is consistently in the CCS title hunt. The ‘Catz only trail 18-time champ Bellarmine, which won the CIF NorCal D-I championship over Jesuit on Saturday, in CCS titles.
Both teams fully expect to be back competing for section and regional championships next winter.
Watsonville will graduate only four starters — Alvarado, Alejandro Zepeda, Noel Vega and Angel Luis Hernandez — from its roster of 20. Replacing those four, however, won’t be an easy task.
Getting over Saturday’s loss will be plenty tough, too.
“Everyone of my teammates, they’re like my brothers,” Vasquez said. “We fought hard to the end. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the championship, but that’s how soccer is sometimes. We just have to work hard for next season and get the championship.”
Another key retuner: Hedgpeth, who will enter his 50th season at the helm with a 658-132-103 record.