RIVERSIDE — Kekai Whitford is the definition of a super-utility player for the Sage Hill School girls' soccer team.
Before last year she had never played stopper, but that was her role as a freshman. Before this year Whitford had never played goalkeeper, but Coach Catie Chase put her there.
Whitford has that kind of talent, even as a sophomore. And she left her sizable imprint all over Tuesday's CIF Southern Section Division 5 wild-card match at Riverside Norte Vista.
Whitford scored in the 79th minute to tie the score at 1-1. Then she made big saves — and also scored — in the ensuing penalty-kick shootout.
The Lightning won the match on penalty kicks, 3-1, to advance to Thursday's first round. They will travel back to the Inland Empire to play at Bloomington, the No. 3 seed.
They don't get there without Whitford. The Lightning (14-7-3) played better in the second half than the first, but they still were two minutes from losing Tuesday's match. That was before Whitford lofted a straightaway kick from about 35 yards out over the outstretched arms of Norte Vista goalie Karen Estrada.
The perfectly angled goal gave Sage Hill new life.
"At the end of the day, I play for the seniors," Whitford said. "It's a big deal, because we're going to be missing a lot of them next year, and they all are such key players … It was nice to be able to do it for them."
The teams played two 10-minute "golden goal" overtime periods without further scoring, so they went to a shootout. Junior Meg Crade, Whitford and senior Madi Jabara scored in the shootout for Sage Hill. Jabara's shot, which bounced over the goalie and into the net, won the match.
Whitford saved three Norte Vista penalty shots in the shootout, and another went wide left. Only Braves freshman Edith Gonzalez was able to score for the Braves, and Whitford deflected that shot as well.
The only other time Whitford had faced penalty shots was earlier this year, in the Westminster tournament.
"My strategy was just to stay in the middle and choose one side, and just go with it," she said. "If you hesitate, you're kind of stuck."
Sage Hill was short-handed against Norte Vista (9-9-1). Chase said senior defender Campbell Moore, a team captain, was out as she was preparing for jaw surgery. And junior midfielder Allie Mowrey, also one of the team's best players, was out with the flu.
Sage moved sophomore Paige Burke into a starting defender spot along with the team's other two team captains, seniors Sophia Witte and Francesca D'Agostino. Senior Brenna Van Hoogenstyn also played a big role defensively. But Norte Vista, the third-place team from the River Valley League, still took the lead in the 23rd minute.
A strong run into the box by Danni Marin caused Whitford to come out, but the ball got past her and she fell down on the play. Norte Vista's Kim Le was there to tap the ball into the open net.
The Lightning moved Whitford (five saves) into the center midfield spot at halftime. Freshman Lauren Thunen (three saves) played the rest of regulation and the overtimes in goal, before Whitford returned for the shootout.
"She wasn't getting that much action in the back, and we know she can be a key player on the field," Chase said. "We decided as a coaching staff that the best choice at that moment was to put her in the middle of the field, and see what kind of opportunities she could bring about for us. She ended up scoring, which was huge."
Jabara, Crade and freshmen Tiffany Taylor and Alyssa Anderson kept creating scoring opportunities in the second half for the Lightning, who were better able to utilize their ball-control offense. It finally paid off on Whitford's goal.
"We recognized that it was time to really start stepping it up," Chase said. "It shows what true fighters we have on this team. We worked through everything, we battled to the end and we came out with a win."
Sage will need another inspired effort against Bloomington, the Sunkist League champion. But Witte said the team has confidence going into that match.
The Lightning also have their sophomore stud, Whitford.
"I think we were playing well in the second half, we just couldn't put it away," Witte said. "Kekai's amazing shot definitely pushed us through."