WATSONVILLE — Christmas came early for high school soccer fans.
The two most decorated soccer programs in the Central Coast Section rekindled their epic rivalry in what felt like a preview of March.
Bellarmine vs. Watsonville.
Seventeen-time CCS champion vs. 11-time CCS champion.
No. 6 in the state vs. No. 30.
The celebrated private school vs. the scrappy public school.
A rivalry almost too good to be true.
And Wednesday’s game lived up to the hype.
Watsonville erased a 2-0 first-half deficit, but Bellarmine stunned the host Wildcatz with a score in the 79th minute to walk off Emmett M. Geiser Field with bragging rights over its longtime rival.
Preseason games usually don’t mean much for either team.
That wasn’t the case this time around, as several Bells let out loud celebratory yells after the final whistle.
“It definitely means something to us,” said Bellarmine coach Conor Salcido. “But, in the end, in two-and-a-half months it’s going to be the same thing again. You rather win that one.”
In two-and-a-half months the CCS playoffs will be well underway, and it’s likely the two could lock horns once again for all the marbles.
Youthful Watsonville (4-1-1), which starts just three seniors, will have to improve plenty in the meantime. Two of Bellarmine’s (5-0-2) scores were off rebounds the Wildcatz failed to clear, and the game-winner came on a costly turnover deep in their own territory.
“We didn’t play our game. We were playing their game,” said Watsonville senior defender Ricardo Alvarado. “It wasn’t a good game. It didn’t look good for the team, because we don’t play like that. I think with time, as our preseason keeps going, we’re going to improve and learn from this game.”
Despite the mistakes, the undersized Wildcatz still made plenty of plays typical of their beautiful touch-touch brand of soccer. The most notable: sophomore Jael Leal’s Messi-esque dribble through a trio of defenders and assist to junior Alexis Valenzuela for the game-tying goal in the 51st minute.
“Amazing skill from Jael,” Valenzuela said. “He’s got that talent.”
Their talent wasn’t quite enough to make up for their mistakes on Wednesday, but the flashes of brilliance did leave longtime head coach Roland Hedgpeth confident in his team’s future, which includes another preseason game against cross-city rival Pajaro Valley on Friday, and an upcoming trip to Hawaii to play some of the top teams in the island state.
“They’ll shake it off,” Hedgpeth said. “They know if we ever meet them again what we can do to them. We’re not intimidated by them at all.”
The Wildcatz were unintimidated by the rival Bells, but were a little jumbled in the back half during their attacks. Bellarmine racked up nine shots on goal and seven corner kicks on an inexperienced Watsonville defense that was without starter Noel Vega because of a red card he received in the team’s win over Menlo-Atherton in the Homestead Christmas Cup.
A free kick off the foot of sophomore Yoni Aidlberg in the 28th minute created a scoring opportunity for senior Sam Clark, and a defensive miscommunication four minutes later left sophomore Ben Do running nearly unguarded to the game’s second goal.
Watsonville junior midfielder Eric Vasquez cut the lead in half two minutes later on a penalty kick, and Leal set up Valenzuela 11 minutes into the second half to even it up at 2-all.
The Wildcatz had two good looks at goal in the final five minutes, but both wound up in the arms of Bellarmine’s sophomore keeper Ben Galdes.
A late Watsonville turnover gave Bellarmine senior forward Jake Rhodes a clean look at the game-winning score.
He didn’t miss.
“We knew if we played anything worse than an ‘A-minus’ kind of game, we’d lose to these guys,” Salcido said. “They’re solid.”
Wednesday was the first meeting between Bellarmine and Watsonville since the 2015-16 CCS Open Division semifinals. The Wildcatz got the best of the Bells in that meeting en route to the program’s 11th section crown.
The last time the rivals met in the preseason, however, was the 2011-12 season, and Bellarmine had not made the trip to Watsonville since the 2006-07 campaign.
The time apart did little to slow the rivalry, as both teams were physical and players became chippy while trying to find the game-winner in the final 20 minutes — each team had a player hit with a yellow card during the closing stretch.
“Bellarmine, wonderful team, really competitive,” Alvarado said. “They’re a top team just like us, so we expected them to have a great game. We didn’t want them to win, but they played a good game…We were a bit nervous, and it got to our heads.”