ROHNERT PARK — Two minutes into the game, Montgomery was on the board, and after that, the Rancho Cotate Cougars could never quite get their bearings.
In the battle of the unbeatens in North Bay League boys soccer Wednesday night, the visiting Montgomery Vikings struck early and struck often to beat the host Cougars 4-0 in what was the marquee matchup of the first half of the league season.
The win moves Montgomery, the defending league champions, to 10-2-1 overall and 6-0 in league and into sole possession of first place heading into Friday night’s home game against Santa Rosa, a team the Vikings beat 4-1 on Dec. 12.
“Whenever you come into a game like this and score early, it does wonders for the team,” Vikings coach Jon Schwan said.
“I felt like it energized us, gave us a sense of belief. It made us hungrier,” he said. “It was the start we wanted.”
It would have been tough to score any earlier.
Three minutes weren’t gone when Montgomery earned a corner kick. Vikings striker Alan Soto lofted a ball into the crowded box but the Cougars failed to clear it. With the ball on the ground, junior Oscar Roque tapped one in.
Five minutes later, sophomore Zack Batchelder settled the ball off of his chest at the top of the box and flicked a ball to senior Bryan Rosales, who had an open net in front of him to make it 2-0 Vikings.
Rosales almost made it 3-0 minutes later when he was streaking toward the goal, tracking down a lofting through ball, when his first touch put the ball off his arm and he was called for a hand ball.
But that third goal came anyway. With 10 minutes to play in the half, Vikings senior Calvin Perkins beat senior defender Zac Zurevell deep in the left corner. Perkins then slotted a ball through to Roque for Roque’s second goal of the night.
“We came out way too flat,” Cougars coach Nick Rogers said. “Monty did very well in coming out quick. They came out fast and they came out firing.”
It might have been worse had two goals for the Vikings not been called back.
The loss drops the Cougars to 10-2 overall and 6-1 in league.
Rogers praised his team’s effort in the second half, but said the plan to keep the ball moving on the ground was abandoned and the Cougars were inexplicably playing long balls against a tall, strong Montgomery squad.
“The game plan was to keep it on the floor,” he said.
“It’s a black hole,” he said of Montgomery’s central midfield, where senior Carson Wyatt seemingly won every ball out of the air.
“It starts in the midfield with us,” Schwan said. “Carson Wyatt came out and just definitely set the tone in terms of our level of communication and just kind of linking up our line. He was a big difference maker.”
But Rancho’s back line could not keep pace with Montgomery’s speed or technical skills on the ball. The tandem of Soto and Rosales, who linked up for the fourth goal of the game, was dazzling when they were on.
The Cougars never quite looked comfortable under all of the pressure that Montgomery threw at them. It seemed like every pass in the back was contested at speed from the Vikings.
“Coming into this game, I felt nervous, excited, just trying to play the best game I can of the season because I know it’s important whenever we play Rancho,” Soto said.
Despite getting blanked, Rancho is not without their share of dazzle.
Senior Adrian Fontanelli was trouble all night, but couldn’t find the back of the net.
“He’s a guy who can create his own shot, he can set up stuff for others. You worry about putting too much attention on him and he’ll slide the final ball through and get someone open,” Schwan said. “And he’ll pull the trigger on anyone.”
Case in point: Fontanelli struck one in the first half that made Vikings goalkeeper Marcus Valencia go full stretch to his right to tip the ball out of bounds. Had it gone in, it would have made the score 2-1 and would likely have changed the whole tenor of the first half.
But Montgomery’s defense was solid all night long. When the Cougars’ game was in another gear in the second half, the Vikings weathered it.
“Our whole back line, to be honest with you, really kind of came out solid, and really just stayed connected and defended what they need to,” Schwan said.
And they needed to in the second half. That is what Rogers is hanging his hat on this morning. No, the Cougars did not come out firing in the first half, but the second half they showed a glimmer of what they need to build on going into the second half of league play.
“We are 6-1 for a reason,” he said. “One half doesn’t define us. We are much better than we showed.”
Which makes the idea of a rematch next month tantalizing for soccer fans.
When Wyatt was subbed out late in the game, his grin perhaps reflected the history between these two teams. This rivalry may not be as old as time like the one with Santa Rosa, but it’s been a good one on the soccer field in recent years.
“Obviously, it’s amazing playing them,” he said. “They are a good team; they are a physical team. And we love playing them. A rivalry? There is some tension there and we love it and live for it. Hopefully it can continue.”
That is assured. These two teams face off again on Montgomery’s field in the final game of league play Feb. 9. Mark your calendars.
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 and at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @benefield and Instagram @kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”