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Same score, different outcome. And things in North Bay League boys soccer just got interesting.

The scoreboard at Cougar Stadium in Rohnert Park read 2-1 after 80 minutes Wednesday night, but this time, it was the Rancho Cotate Cougars who were victors and the Santa Rosa Panthers who went home with a stinging defeat.

In a match that was at times chippy but for the most part simply hotly contested, the two best teams in the Empire battled nearly evenly throughout.

Despite going down a goal early, Rancho battled back and converted twice to get the win and pull to 8-1 in league play, while handing Santa Rosa its first loss of the season and dropping it to 7-1.

The win essentially ties the two squads atop the North Bay League at the midpoint of the season.

While the Cougars and the Panthers are considered the cream of the NBL crop this season, third place Montgomery will likely put up a fight against both squads. Rancho plays host to the Vikings on Friday.

Still, the game was played with the verve — four yellow cards were issued — of two teams that knew well what was at stake: bragging rights and likely ownership of the league pennant.

“It meant a lot,” said Enrike “Kiki” Gomez, a junior who played a key role in the Cougars’ NBL title run last season. “We are defending champions. Last year they said it was a fluke. Their record shows it and our record shows it — this was a battle for the championship.”

The Panthers got on the board 13 minutes into the game behind an Anthony Lopez pass to Brian Sanchez, who was left alone on the left wing and slotted a low ball into the right corner and past Cougars goalkeeper Cristian Mendoza.

Nine minutes later, Rancho leveled the score after senior Guillermo Irizarry found the ball at his feet after an ineffective, although valiant, clear by a Panthers defender.

“The defender did a bicycle kick to clear it and I was just there to finish it,” he said.

In a game that featured solid, high-speed team play and flashes of individual brilliance from both squads, it was almost strange that both of Rancho’s goals came on somewhat disjointed plays.

And the second goal was perhaps a bit of karma.

Rancho Cotate was in full attack mode with a runner dribbling clear when the referee’s whistle halted the play. A foul was called against the Panthers, but it seemed like the play should have been allowed to run, as Rancho had the advantage.

No matter.

On the ensuing free kick, sophomore Adrian Fontanelli found Gomez alone and apart from the scrum in the box. Gomez sent home a shot that deflected off a defender and into the net.

“I was making my run towards first post, near post, and the defender kind of went for it so I just hanged out in back and then Adrian saw me,” Gomez said.

Santa Rosa fans should not fault Panthers goalkeeper Jairo Villalobos. The senior had no chance at the ball that changed direction midflight. And Villalobos was stellar all night, saving two one-on-one attacks in the waning minutes of the game in brilliant fashion.

Santa Rosa, which has had more than two goals scored on it only twice all season, went into halftime trailing. Also a rarity.

From the outset, Wednesday’s game promised to be tight. The numbers said so.

Going into the contest, Santa Rosa had a league-leading 2.9 goals-per-game average. The Cougars? Right behind them at 2.7 goals. While Santa Rosa allows a stingy .85 goals per game, Rancho only allows .93 goals per game.

Even in the second half, which was scoreless, both sides had chances, many of them flashy or the result of blindingly fast runs.

Rancho’s Kevin Juarez was particularly lethal. The senior, who has eight goals on the season, seemed to have a hand in just about every Cougars attack.

Rancho head coach Eamon Kelly said a few midseason tweaks might have made the difference in his squad. The Cougars now play Gomez and Juarez up front and have pulled playmaker Fontanelli into an attacking midfield role with alongside Irizarry. The result is lethal.

Kelly also credited his squad’s growing maturity. Less chirping at the refs, less getting mouthy with opponents. Just play. He called the loss at Santa Rosa on Jan. 6 a turning point.

“We stopped, examined where we were at and refocused,” he said. “They are getting stronger game by game.”

A share of the league title isn’t a sure thing for either squad, with the full slate of NBL opponents ahead for both. But to beat either Rancho or Santa Rosa, other North Bay League squads will have to pull off a mighty upset.

“The win meant a lot for us,” Gomez said. “It’s two great teams. Obviously they have a good record and we have a good record. We really needed this win to get the championship and hopefully we can keep wining and have a miracle with them losing.”

With the level of play on both squads, other teams just might need a miracle.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”