IRVINE — This has been a difficult year at times for the Corona del Mar High girls' soccer team.
The Sea Kings lost the Battle of the Bay game for the first time in four years. In the Pacific Coast League, they seemed to always be chasing Northwood for first place.
Yet, in the span of 20 brilliant, emotional, heart-stopping minutes, the Sea Kings cast all of that aside Thursday at Northwood High.
The bid for a fourth straight outright league title seemed gone midway through the second half of the league finale. Yet nobody told CdM that. Faced with the daunting task of scoring three straight goals, CdM kept working.
Freshman Hunter Gantos scored the game-winning goal in stoppage time as CdM rallied to stun Northwood, 3-2, to capture that fourth straight league title and fifth in the last six years. When Coach Bryan Middleton called Thursday's win one of the most dramatic in program history, he wasn't lying.
Miranda Stiver scored in the 65th minute and Shelby Brown scored in the 70th minute as the Sea Kings rallied to tie the score. Then came Gantos' goal, which came from the left on a ball she said she was just trying to cross. Her thrown-in from the Northwood sideline went short to Brown, who tapped it back to Gantos to cross. But the ball went into the upper-right corner of the net.
The goal set off a party on the CdM sideline. Members of the boys' soccer team blasted the song by Jet, "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?"
CdM's six-player senior class of Stiver, Sabrina Roy, Molly Keasey, Jayden Smith, Makena Look and goalkeeper Kendall Mulvaney was jubilant.
"It was literally all because we did not give up," Stiver said. "Our team, I don't have words for how proud of us [I am] right now. I bet you, 99% of teams, [down] 2-0, that doesn't happen. but we had such good team spirit. Not one single person on the team gave up, and every single person on the field wanted it so badly ... You could just feel how much we wanted it, and we got it done.
"It was an amazing feeling when you realize, 'Wow, we can win this!' There's no going back once you realize that, especially with our team."
This one did not come easy, not at all. The Sea Kings (11-5-3, 7-2-1 in league) came into the game needing to do something no other team in league has been able to do — beat Northwood (5-1-4 in league). They were behind the hosts by a point. A loss or a tie, and the Timberwolves took home the outright title.
When Northwood senior Philine Qian scored two goals in the first 12 minutes of the second half, the Sea Kings were on the ropes. They started getting a bit testy.
"Can we get our bench to support us a little bit?" Stiver yelled toward her teammates. "It's kind of quiet."
Yet they kept working. Brown continued her red-hot-play lately, feeding the ball to Stiver on the right. The goalkeeper charged and Stiver shot it past her, giving CdM its first goal.
"I could see some heads down for a few minutes, but they battled back," Middleton said. "Once they got that goal, everything lifted up ... and once we hit the second one I knew we had an opportunity to win the game. They were starting to fold."
The roles were reversed on the second goal, as Stiver passed it to Brown. The junior midfielder stuck a shot from near the top of the box over the goalie, tying the score with 10 minutes left in regulation.
Northwood Coach Chris Woolley saw his team, which finishes second in league for the second straight year, get too tentative.
"We just didn't see the game out very well, at all," Woolley said. "We knew going in that there was no way [CdM[ was going to lie down. Even at 2-0, you relax a little bit, you feel a little bit more comfortable, but you know that's a team that can have a comeback like that ... When they got that goal, I think it rattled us a little bit. On the field, they started to get a little bit wobbly. CdM didn't do anything special, they just out-worked us and out-gritted us and out-hustled us. They made the most of what they got."
CdM pushed for the game-winner it had to have. Junior midfielder Birkley Sigband earned a throw-in deep in Northwood territory, but Chinyere Chambers was able to clear it. When the Sea Kings got another throw-in deep in the Northwood zone, they made the most of it. Middleton called the game-winning goal "a little bit of a Hail Mary," and Gantos wouldn't argue.
"For sure [I was trying to cross it]," Gantos said. "I actually thought it didn't go in. The ball was in the goal and it was against the net, but I thought it was on the outside ... and then it didn't roll. I was just really excited. I kind of was in shock."
Mulvaney made four saves for CdM, which played without junior defender Brianna Westrup but got big plays on defense by Keasey, sophomore Allie Doherty and freshman Christina Venturini. Junior Tori English also made the most of increased minutes on defense
In the end, the final whistle blew, and the CdM reign continued. The Sea Kings now await the release of the CIF Southern Section Division 1 playoff brackets on Monday.
They come into the playoffs hot, winners of four straight games. The two wins this week, over Beckman and Northwood, took plenty of skill but also tons of heart.
"It's insane," Stiver said. "To win [league] this way, with the team we have and all the heart? It's unreal ... I liked the way we won because I think it shows our team's character. I find a lot more enjoyment in coming from behind. Everyone said, 'This is a rebuilding year,' but we showed that wrong with a team effort. This win means a lot to the seniors."