SANTA CRUZ — The Aptos Mariners faced various challenges during the first two-thirds of their 2018-19 season, but none were tough enough to knock them off of their game.
That changed on Tuesday night.
Aptos, ranked 25th in the state by Maxpreps.com, almost saw its undefeated start to the season come to an end in a 1-1 draw against Santa Cruz, ranked 135th.
Winners of their previous 14 Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League matches dating back to last season, the Mariners (10-0-3, 4-0-1) had to withstand a fast and physical flurry from the Cardinals (8-2-3, 3-0-2) to remain atop the league heading into the second and final round of action.
The five-time defending SCCAL champions will have a full week to rest up before they host San Lorenzo Valley on Jan. 29.
The days off will be a blessing after Tuesday night’s knock-down-drag-out match, which saw at least four girls crash against the turf and shed tears.
“I would definitely say this is the most physical game that we’ve played so far, and I think it kind of showed with our girls,” said Aptos first-year coach Jordyn Ryfiak. “They kind of literally knocked us off of our game.”
Junior Aubree Westjohn gave Aptos a 1-0 lead at the half with a stellar long-distance strike from the right side of the goal in the 23rd minute, but Santa Cruz quickly muscled its way back into the game after the intermission.
Sophomore Summer Laskey tied the game in the 46th minute by converting a penalty kick set up by senior forward Kaya Jensen’s strong drive into the heart of the Mariners’ defense, and the Cardinals continued their unrelenting pressure over the last 40 minutes, creating a handful of scoring opportunities.
Aptos senior keeper Caroline Miller finished with four big saves in the second half, and put her body on the line while leaping for a punch save on a corner kick. She and Santa Cruz freshman Jade Hays met in the air in a scary collision that left both dazed for a few moments.
“We were expecting it to be physical, we knew that,” said Miller, who stayed in the game despite the ugly crash, “but we didn’t necessarily apply it as well as we should have.”
Miller wasn’t the lone Mariner who hit the deck.
Senior Olivia Meier, the Binghamton University-bound midfielder who leads the team with nine goals, took a rough spill during the final 15 minutes, and had to exit the match with a shoulder injury.
Both left battered and bruised, but said they’d be fine going forward.
“I’m glad we have a bye on Thursday,” Miller said.
The rest will give the Mariners some time to recover, and recapture the same offensive flow that helped them dominate the first half of Tuesday’s match and win seven straight games with a goal differential of 31-2.
“[The tie] felt like a loss to us, and that’s what a lot of the girls said, too, just because we know we could’ve done better,” said Ryfiak, who admitted the young Mariners still have plenty of growing and gelling to do over their final five games of the regular season.
Aptos not only had to say goodbye to longtime head coach Jessica Perkin after last season, but also graduated seven seniors. All seven seniors started, two of which were Grace Rothman and Paige Dueck, who were named the best at their position in the SCCAL, and another, Monserrat Hernandez Marquez, was the two-time league M.V.P. who now plays college soccer at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo.
The Mariners replaced that group with six freshman — three of whom start — and did not skip a beat during their undefeated start, which included ties against Los Gatos (12th in California) and St. Francis (51st) and a win over Presentation (84th).
“I thought we’d have to work so much harder after losing so many seniors to get where we are now, but, honestly, I think we’re doing such a good job,” Westjohn said. “We just have to go harder over the next games we play.”
Editor's Note: This article will publish in the Jan. 25 edition of the Register-Pajaronian.