The Montgomery Vikings are going to see Claire Howard in their dreams. Or nightmares, more like it.
And who would blame them?
Howard, the senior captain of the Maria Carrillo Pumas girls soccer team, single-handedly saved the Pumas’ bacon for a long stretch in the second half of Saturday night’s North Coast Section Division 1 final with saves that were beyond phenomenal.
It was Howard who robbed Montgomery superstar Taylor Ziemer from goals at least three times, and snagged a series of other rockets that seemed destined for the net.
Howard was having none of it.
“They got the momentum for awhile,” she said after her Pumas secured their fifth consecutive NCS title. “It’s just one of those things where you have to come up big in big situations. I wasn’t going to let my team down.”
With their 2-0 win, the Pumas settle in next to Montgomery as the most successful program in Empire soccer history. A five-in-a-row title streak last happened when Montgomery did it from 1990-94.
In addition to Howard, Pumas fans can thank senior co-captain Brooke Dunbar, who rocketed home a shot with her left foot midway through the second half that took the life out of the resurgent Vikings.
“I saw it — there was a small opening and I took it,” she said. “We needed that second goal.”
“Brooke did what Brooke’s done all year,” said Pumas head coach Debra LaPrath. “That keeper had no chance for that ball.”
Saturday’s matchup was the hardest fought of this season — a season that saw the two most dominant programs in high school girls soccer in the Empire meet four times.
The Pumas brought home the win in three of the four contests, but had to be content with sharing the North Bay League championship for the first time in their seniors’ high school careers.
Montgomery coach Pat McDonald praised his kids’ effort Saturday night.
“I thought we played a great second half; we put a lot of pressure on them,” he said.
A ton of that pressure came from the creative play of junior Eden Brooker.
“We definitely found our rhythm,” she said. “Being down and playing that hard? I was proud to be a part of it.”
Carrillo got on the board early in the contest off a corner kick by senior Bria VarnBuhler that senior defender Ali King knocked in.
Carrillo had the advantage on possession, but the Vikings would not go away.
Taylor Ziemer got off a string of beyond-comprehension missile launches from long range and steep angles — all forcing Howard into acrobatic saves.
But Howard never looked rattled and continued to guard the net with ferocity and athleticism that the Vikings could not unlock.
The game also marked the temporary sending-off of King, who received a yellow card after a hard tackle on Ziemer. King later returned to the game.
And Vikings stalwart Tera Ziemer, a creative force for Montgomery all season, did not play the whole game after fighting off illness this week.
Maddy Gonzalez, the dynamic forward for the Pumas and the two-time defending All-Empire Player of the Year, was out for a chunk of the second half with a deep hip bruise. She was subbed back onto the pitch with two minutes remaining to the cheers of the Puma faithful.