The first meeting between crosstown rivals Santa Barbara High and San Marcos High could not have had a more exciting ending out on the pitch of Warkentin Stadium.
After about 65 minutes of offensive stalls, the Dons finally found the back of the net at the 71st minute to take a 1-0 lead.
Instead of hanging their heads, however, the Royals responded.
Three minutes after Santa Barbara’s score, San Marcos’ Matt Hislop headed a pass deep down the left flank and senior forward AJRanii outran the Dons’ defense and got just enough of a left boot on it to level the match in a contest that would end in a 1-1 draw.
“I just tried to get behind Matt because I knew he was going to win that header. He’s a fantastic player, he wins all the balls in the air. I just had to beat my man and finish near post,” Ranii said after the game.
“They had a lot of guys tired in the back. We were just trying to get in behind them and score a goal and thank God we got it.”
The Royals (6-3-5, 0-0-2) are still searching for their first league win, but for head coach Paul McLean, Saturday’s 1-1 result felt a lot better than Thursday’s 1-1 tie at Lompoc.
“Yes, they do. I just think the Channel League is going to be wide open this year. There’s going to be a lot of teams beating other teams that traditionally haven’t which makes it a lot of fun,” McLean said.
After Ranii leveled the match at 1-1, both teams had opportunities to score a game-winner, but none looked better than one in the 79th minute.
After San Marcos misplayed a deep ball, Santa Barbara’s Miguel Alvarado controlled the ball and ran down the right side of the field all alone.
The junior forward hesitated just a bit too long, however, which allowed the Royals senior defender Julio Montes to come in from the side and make an amazing slide tackle.
On the ensuing play, the Dons threw the ball into Luisangel Jeronimo who shot from just outside the 18 but missed wide right.
The referee immediately blew his whistle after Jeronimo’s kick signaling the end of the game.
“It was just a free ball. The nerves kicked in a little bit and the defender made a great slide. I shot just a little too late, I could have let it go a little earlier and hope the keeper puts it out for another player to take it or something but I just have to learn from that play,” Alvarado said.
While, in hindsight, Alvarado should’ve shot the ball just a few moments sooner, there is no doubt that Montes made a game-defining play, something that did not go unnoticed by his team and especially his keeper.
“I just want to comment on Julio Montes’s great sliding tackle that saved us the draw. He’s our man of the match today for sure, he deserves all the credit,” Ranii said.
“I have to give Julio all the credit, he saved my (life) on that play,” keeper Sam Friedman said.
After the game, Friedman was quick to give credit to his entire backline, which did play exceptionally, however, he himself was fantastic in goal for the Royals.
Early in the second half, Santa Barbara’s Juan Carlos Torres had a free-kick from just outside the box which Friedman made a great sliding save on.
The junior came up with save after save on Saturday during key moments totaling six on the night.
“It’s just a great feeling to come out and perform well for the boys. We had a very strong performance tonight, I think one of the best we’ve had all year and it’s just an unbelievable experience playing against all your friends,” Friedman said.
The one save Friedman could not come up with was a shot that not many keepers could have saved.
In the 71st minute, Alvarado drew a foul and had a free-kick from the right sideline near the corner. Alvarado kicked the ball into the middle and three Dons faked the shot.
Instead, it was senior defender Diego Espinoza who stepped up and fired a shot from his right foot that found the left corner of the goal to put the Dons up 1-0.
“The right one (took the shot),” Santa Barbara coach Todd Heil said.
“Diego has a phenomenal shot. At practice, he nails it. Left foot, right foot, his ability to put things on frame is mind-boggling sometimes and you saw on display right there. He has had some struggles this year but that was a big goal for him and his confidence going forward.”
For Heil, the most disappointing aspect of the Dons loss was the slow start at the beginning of the match.
“I don’t know if we started the game in our fashion. I am not sure what was missing. In the second half, we took it to them, we got opportunities and finally the goal,” Heil said.
Heil, in his 24th year as coach, was also shocked by his team’s inability to keep the lead late. Ranii’s goal in the 71st minute came simply as a result of him outrunning and beating Santa Barbara’s Sean Williams to the ball.
Additionally, Hislop was only able to feed his forward the ball after winning a header following a free kick from San Marcos after the team drew a foul in it’s back third.
“To be honest, it’s uncharacteristic for us to give up a goal late like that up 1-0. That is not something we traditionally do, but there is some youth back there and it is a rivalry game so there are emotions but, after the foul, I don’t think we did the little things needed to get out of here 1-0,” Heil said.
With the first game ending in a draw, there is no doubt both sides feel like there is unfinished business out on the pitch.
The two teams will not have to wait long, however, for the next match as they are slated to meet in less than two weeks on Jan. 23 at Warkentin Stadium.
“We had more of a hunger (after falling behind 1-0) and we wanted to satisfy it and we didn’t get it yet, but hopefully next time we can come out and beat them,” Ranii said.