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Benefield: One right move sends Montgomery boys to NorCal soccer finale

If You Go

Who: No. 2 Montgomery at No. 1 Jesuit

What: NorCal Division I boys soccer final

Where: Jesuit High School, 1200 Jacob Lane, Carmichael

When: 3 p.m. Saturday

Soccer is a game of a million tiny touches and moments, and a game that is rarely defined by a single play.

Rarely, but not never.

No. 2 Montgomery High School's 1-0 win Thursday over visiting No. 3 Bellarmine College Prep in the semifinal game of the NorCal Division I boys soccer tournament was defined by a single play.

In the closing seconds of the first half, with the Vikings up 1-0 thanks to yet another brilliant goal by senior Zack Batchelder, the Vikings won a free kick within striking distance of the Bells' goal. It was an opportunity to make a play and perhaps put the home team up 2-0, enough to inject a ton of confidence into the Vikings heading into halftime.

But senior Kevin Welch, who was a dynamic playmaker and defender all night, didn't get the right touch on the free kick and it turned into an immediate counterattack by Bellarmine.

The Bells attacker beat Vikings defender Gabriel Guerrero and then Vikings goalkeeper Emanuel Padilla, who in a last-ditch effort to keep the ball out of the net, tripped up the Bells' striker. Yellow card. Padilla -owner of 14 shutouts this season - had to leave the field. Worse yet, the single play he had to miss? A penalty kick.

Welcome to the game, sophomore Martin Cortez.

Cortez hadn't seen action in weeks. The only time he'd been on the field this season was in league games that were locked up. To step into the NorCal semifinal game against the Division I defending champion Bellarmine Bells in a penalty-kick situation is either the stuff of dreams or the makings of nightmares.

The sophomore, who wasn't even wearing his gloves when his name was called, trotted to the box as Vikings fans roared their displeasure at the call. Cortez took his place in front of Bellarmine senior Jahan Seifollahi, who put the ball on the spot. The whistle blew. Siefollahi struck the ball to his right, Cortez's left. Cortez went left, too.

“At first I'm like, ‘Did I save it or did it just go underneath me?' But I look over and it's in my hands and I just see everybody coming towards me,” Cortez said.

He rolled over it once just to make sure it was there.

“Just an amazing feeling,” he said.

The game was 80 minutes long, the ultra-stingy Vikings defense put up yet another shutout, Batchelder scored a gem of a goal in the 12th minute that turned out to be enough to send the Vikings through to the final -but Montgomery's backup goalkeeper, a guy who wears a field number, 12, on his keeper jersey, was the hero Thursday.

“The odds are so against you,” Vikings coach Jon Schwan said of any keeper making a penalty save. “The conversion rate is what it is for a reason.

“To be sitting on the bench and then literally a minute after you get off the bench you are asked to do that in a state semifinal match as a sophomore?” he said shaking his head.

The moment was almost unimaginable. If Siefollahi scores that goal, the entire game changes. Not just momentum, but how the Vikings play and where and what kind of attack they bring. For a team that has led nearly every minute of every game this season, it would have thrust them into unfamiliar territory.

And to do that against a team as talented as Bellarmine could have proven deadly.

“It's the best team we've played all year,” Schwan said of the Bells. “They are the defending CIF champs. We knew the moment wouldn't be too big for them and when it's a 1-0 game that's kind of your biggest fear as a coach - would the moment get too big for us?”

The quick answer? No. The Vikings were big when the big moments came. The defense remained stout as a very balanced Bellarmine attack never really let up. And as the game wound down, the Bells played as if they knew their season was ending and they fought against it.

“We were doing a lot of defending there, a lot of throws into the box and balls into the box and every time, I just saw a jersey in red rising above and to head it away and that's all you can ask for,” Schwan said.

“The show goes on,” he said.

And this show has been a fantastic one. This Vikings team has not lost a game all season. They have won the North Bay League four years running. They have made the North Coast Section championship game four years in a row and took home the champions banner the last three - this season in Division I.

They have scored 116 goals in 26 games - 4.5 goals per game. Goals allowed per game? Perhaps more impressive: 0.5. The only blemish on their record was a tie in the final game of the regular season with Rancho Cotate.

Their reward at this point in the season? Traveling to face Jesuit High of Carmichael in the title game Saturday afternoon.

The aptly named Jesuit Marauders are 25-1-1 and the top seed in this NorCal tournament. Their stat line is eerily similar to the Vikings: 4.3 goals scored per game and 0.4 goals allowed. They won the Division 1 Sac-Joaquin Section title with a 1-0 win over Tokay.

For perspective and perhaps a silver lining, the Vikings had their way with Tokay in the opening game of NorCals, winning 6-0.

But the Vikings may be battling more than Jesuit Saturday. This CIF NorCal title is one that has eluded the Vikings.

Schwan called the NorCal title - the closest a soccer team can get to a state title at this point - the program's “white whale.” The Vikings lost in overtime to St. Ignatius in the final of the inaugural NorCal tournament in 2018 and last year, after getting a questionable seeding of sixth, were bounced in the first round.

But Thursday was a huge test and the Viking passed. And they passed not only because of the magical goal-scoring ability of Batchelder and because of Welch's ability to steer the show from the midfield, but because of a guy who likely has not appeared in a stat line all season, a guy who warms up every game only to sit down.

On Thursday, he was asked to stand up. And he did - just before he dove. And Vikings fans everywhere are thanking the soccer gods today that Martin Cortez dove left.

If You Go

Who: No. 2 Montgomery at No. 1 Jesuit

What: NorCal Division I boys soccer final

Where: Jesuit High School, 1200 Jacob Lane, Carmichael

When: 3 p.m. Saturday

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