SEASIDE — Monte Vista Christian saved its best for last.
It was almost enough.
The much-anticipated battle between the top two teams in the Pacific Coast Athletic League Cypress division lived up to the billing, as a few inches were all that separated the league-leading Mustangs and the second-place Seaside Spartans on Friday night.
Shayna Lebovitz’s header off of Sophia Bessa’s free kick in the final minute of the match clanked off the crossbar and out, preserving a frustrating 1-1 tie for both teams.
“It looked really good — perfect free kick, and perfect header,” said M.V.C. coach Morgan Miller. “The ball didn’t go our way today.”
How good did the header look?
“I had already started celebrating,” said Lebovitz, a sophomore winger who has a team-high 11 goals on the season.
A win would have been a feat worth celebrating.
M.V.C. (7-2-4, 5-0-2) had to rally to get a shot at the game-winner.
Seaside (5-1-4, 4-0-3) stunned the Mustangs with the game’s first goal in the 65th minute. Maria Vasquez sailed a free kick from just outside of the penalty box over the M.V.C. keeper and into the back of the net to break the scoreless tie.
But the Mustangs nine minutes later found the equalizer by sheer effort. Caroline Sullivan’s shot from roughly 20 yards away thumped off the right goal post, but Sara Thornburg beat a pair of Spartans for the rebound and chipped the ball back toward goal. Jana Komposch tapped the ball into the back of the net for her sixth goal of the season, and the Mustangs hurried back to midfield hoping to get another chance.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
“[M.V.C.] rose to the occasion,” said Seaside coach Joseph Aleru. “It kind of takes all the air out of you when they come back and equalize, but we played well. We played hard and kept our composure for the most part.”
Friday’s meeting was the second and final time the two teams will meet in the regular season. The first, too, ended in a tie — a scoreless one at that — but draws wont cut it for either team down the final stretch of the season.
With only two points separating M.V.C. (17) and Seaside (15), every game over the final three weeks of the regular season will be paramount in determining who wins the PCAL-Cypress and takes the division’s lone automatic Central Coast Section playoff berth — the runner-up of the division will play the champion of the Santa Lucia division for a postseason spot.
“I think not coming away with a win probably makes us work harder now knowing that it’s an even closer race,” Miller said. “It’s got to be a clean sheet going forward.”
Which is not an unachievable goal considering the Mustangs’ prolific performance since the start of the new year.
Before Friday’s tie, M.V.C. had won four consecutive league games and posted a goal differential of 22-3 over those wins.
Still, Lebovitz said the Mustangs needed to make drastic improvements in the final third of the field if they wish to win the program’s first league title since 2014-15.
“We still should score more, and especially in this game,” Lebovitz said. “We have a lot of chances and we have to finish them."
Friday's game was uncharted territory for Seaside. The Spartans had not played in a game with league-title implications since the 2009-10 season, a campaign in which they finished second in the now-defunct Monterey Bay League and earned the program's lone CCS playoff berth.
The Spartans have never won a league crown, but a hardworking group of 13 upperclassmen are trying to change that this winter.
"They bought into the ideas and we're making progress," Aleru said. "This isn't going anywhere anytime soon either. It's not a fluke. These girls are hungry and they're really trying to change the outlook that Seaside has. They're doing it. All credit to them."
Playing against a loaded defensive box and a solid keeper in Melesini Moala on Friday provided several problems for the speedy Mustangs, who like to funnel their offense to the edges.
The muddy field conditions only benefited the Spartans’ defensive-minded approach.
M.V.C. had six shots on goal in each half, but all but one of their shots over the first 40 minutes were from a comfortable distance.
Komposch had the only good look at goal of the first half. The freshman forward used her speed to create a one-on-one situation in transition during the 36th minute, but Moala kept the game scoreless with one of her seven saves of the night.
The Spartans, content sitting back in their defensive shell, waited patiently for their opportunities to strike in transition with forwards Sashana Gore, Monse Bastida and Cindy Quiroz.
A foul on the right side of the penalty box gave Vasquez a free kick from roughly 25 yards away, and the junior defender perfectly looped the ball over M.V.C.’s wall and into the left side of the goal.
The Mustangs were frazzled and frustrated following the score — as evidence from the yellow card on senior forward Kailey Morrell mere seconds after — but settled in and secured the tie.
“They’re organized, and they play clean soccer — that’s why its so hard when we face each other,” Aleru said. “When we face other teams, it’s kind of chaotic. When we face each other, it’s clean organized soccer, and it’s a battle of whoever wants it more.”
Two regular season games couldn’t answer that question.
But the next three weeks will.
“We have to win all our games — we can’t lose,” Lebovitz said.
Editor's note: This story will run in the Jan. 25 edition of the Register-Pajaronian newspaper.