CASTROVILLE — The Watsonville Wildcatz survived a scary moment during the first 10 minutes of Wednesday night’s 3-0 win over the North Monterey County Condors.
It was nothing compared to the scare they went through two weeks ago.
On its way back home following a three-game trip to Hawaii, Watsonville (9-1-3, 2-0-1) had its flight rerouted back to the island state after the plane’s cabin smelled of smoke an hour and 15 minutes into the journey.
The Wildcatz all made it home in one piece three days later — in six different flights after a short stay at a five-star hotel, thanks to a full refund from the airline — but the moments in between were hectic.
“I didn’t let them know at the time, but even I was a little bit worried,” said Watsonville coach Roland Hedgpeth. “We got to stay a few more days in Hawaii. I’m sure the kids didn’t care too much about that.”
Said Watsonville junior midfielder Julian Garcia: “It was scary at the time, but we got to stay at a five-star hotel. I’m not complaining anymore.”
And the ‘Catz haven’t had much to complain about on the field either since returning home safely.
Wednesday’s rout of N.M.C. (4-6-2, 1-3-1) was only their third game since the incident — they had to reschedule two games because of the redirected flight and another because of poor weather — but the ‘Catz showed no signs of rust.
No, Watsonville, ranked 23rd in the state by Maxpreps.com, was back to its usual dominant self, filling in open space in the defense, making the quick and easy pass and converting its scoring chances into goals.
Sophomore forward Jael Leal recorded the first hat trick of his young career off assists from junior Eric Vasquez, senior Angel Luis Hernandez and Garcia, and the Watsonville defense posted its third shutout of Pacific Coast Athletic League Gabilan division play in as many games.
“That’s how we need to play every game,” said Leal, who has a team-high seven goals. “This time we showed that we can execute.”
Watsonville struggled to show that in what Garcia called a “devastating” scoreless tie against rival Alisal last week, but hopes Wednesday’s flurry can spark a capable offense that scored at least three goals in five of 10 preseason games.
The 11-time Central Coast Section champions have not won a league crown since the 2014-15 season, and they’d like to change that this winter.
Heading into Friday, the ‘Catz were the last unbeaten team in the PCAL-G following Alisal’s 3-1 win over league-leading Soledad on Wednesday.
“I saw a lot from them tonight, it was a lot better,” Hedgpeth said. “We were moving and we were active. The last 20 minutes, we bogged down a bit, but, overall, we’re getting better.”
N.M.C. stunned the PCAL-G by upsetting Alisal 2-1 in the opening week of league play, but was unable to follow up its big win with consistent success. The Condors fell 4-0 to Alvarez five days after shocking the Trojans, and Wednesday’s loss moved them down the league standings even further, falling from third to fifth.
N.M.C. senior forward Fabian Quintana could have put the pressure on Watsonville early on, but his header off junior midfielder Eduardo Hernandez’s free kick sailed a few feet over the goal and out.
It was all Watsonville from there.
In the 30th minute, Vasquez wove down the far sideline and made a perfect dribbling cross to Leal for the game’s first score, and Garcia set up Leal for his second score with a beauty of a cross into the box from long distance 10 minutes later.
Watsonville was back on the attack early in the second half, and Leal was the beneficiary once again. Luis Hernandez fed Leal with a nicely timed through ball, and the latter rocketed in his third goal of the night with a lefty strike.
“I’m not really that good with my left,” Leal said, “but I tried it out and it worked.”
That was a common theme for Watsonville.
“Everything clicked for us,” Garcia said.
Editor's Note: This article will run in the Jan. 25 edition of the Register-Pajaronian.