LA MIRADA — In the final minutes of a scoreless match on Friday night, Coach Bryan Middleton reassured his Corona del Mar High girls' soccer team that all was well. Earlier in the day, the Sea Kings went through the same situation — penalty kicks — and survived.
"Who wants to take PKs?" Middleton asked his players as they walked off the field and sat on the bench.
A trip to the North Orange County Classic white division final was coming down to penalties. Middleton said he was confident his Sea Kings would get past Whittier La Serna, yet he didn't look the part.
As the two teams lined up at midfield to watch La Serna take the first penalty, Middleton backed 15 yards away. He couldn't keep still until one freshman saved the day and another freshman ended it for CdM.
Kat Hess was the first keeper to stop a shot on her own, setting up Chloe Rice to lift CdM to its first tournament final appearance this season. Rice delivered as the Sea Kings won the penalties, 5-4, and advanced to Saturday's championship match at La Mirada High.
The Sea Kings (9-1-1) return to the same field and at the same time (5 p.m.) to face South Torrance. They are playing their fifth match in three days and the schedule has taken a toll on an already thin team.
"We're just preserving, pushing through with the personnel that we have, and just kind of gutting [the wins] out," said Middleton, whose team was without seven players, six of whom start.
Some of those players endured the cold and watched the semifinal match from the sideline. Others were nowhere near the field.
Middleton said Annie Alvarado, a UCLA-bound senior midfielder, was out with a groin injury, Maddie O'Connor, a UC Santa Barbara-bound senior striker, was out with the flu, Monica Venturini, a senior striker and midfielder, with an ankle injury, and three others (senior striker Emily Krebs, junior keeper Kendall Mulvaney, sophomore defender Brianna Westrup) were on family trips. That's a lot of talent missing, yet CdM, ranked No. 2 in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 poll, continues to win.
Credit CdM's defensive play and Hess, who is as agile as her first name. Every time La Serna unleashed a shot, her gloves stopped the ball or deflected it out of danger.
Moriah Earley, a striker, challenged Hess from close range and from 30 yards out, and Hess never wavered. Twelve minutes in, she dove to get to one shot. At the 62nd mark, she leaped to push a shot over the crossbar.
When La Serna was able to get Hess out of position midway through the first half, there was CdM defender Alana Hunter protecting the goal. She got her leg on a shot by Anisa Marquez near the box.
Hunter and defenders Alexa Mamatas, Brynn Motal and Molly Keasey slowed down the quick Lancers, sending the match into penalties.
La Serna, which reached the CIF Southern Section Division 5 final last season, walked back on the field first.
Before CdM returned, Middleton reminded the Sea Kings that they've been through this before, beating St. Margaret's, 4-3, on penalty kicks earlier.
Six hours later, with Mamatas, Hunter, Karsten Sigband, Hess and Rice each finding the back of the net, the Sea Kings moved on again. Their coach told them all along that they would.
"Now, we're going to [see if we] have enough for another tough game," said Middleton, whose defense has only allowed one goal during the tournament.
"[We] just [have to] do the best we can really with what we have."