Benefield: Santa Rosa-Rohnert Park girls soccer rivalry just kicking off

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This game was always going to be about more than just one result. For Santa Rosa and Rancho Cotate’s girls soccer teams, the game on the Cougars’ field Wednesday night was just one piece of a much bigger picture.

Both of these teams have spent a season and a half riding roughshod over every other North Bay League-Redwood Division foe besides each other. From the moment the lopsided scores started mounting last winter, both teams have sounded the call that they belong in the more robust Oak Division, among the likes of Cardinal Newman, Montgomery and Maria Carrillo.

In the first half of league this year, Santa Rosa has beaten El Molino 7-0, Piner 9-0 and Healdsburg 8-0. Their win over Elsie Allen was a forfeit. It was much the same for Rancho, who beat El Molino 1-0 and Healdsburg 9-0 and also won the Elsie game in a forfeit.

Which is why Santa Rosa’s 3-0 win on Rancho’s home field Wednesday night is so precious for the Panthers and a painful blow to the Cougars. It felt like more than just one game. It was a major piece of the resume the teams are crafting to make their case that they deserve to be elevated to Oak.

“These girls have been wanting to move up for two years and they have been fighting for it. They want it. Even the seniors on this team who won’t have it next year, they want their team to move up, which is awesome,” Santa Rosa co-coach Nikki Kumasaka said. “We knew, coming in here, this is the game we needed.”

They got it, thanks in large part to the dynamic play of a freshman and a couple of timely goals.

Harmony James, just a ninth grader, put the Panthers on the board in the 36th minute of the game after a smart, extra pass in the box from sophomore Cielo Sanchez-Loyola gave Rancho’s junior goalkeeper Kaila Misi little chance for a save.

“It was a beautiful goal,” Rancho coach Eddie Chasco said. “It was very nice passing, it was unselfish and it was patient. They moved it through one, two, three players before it went in. That first goal, I give it to them, that was a nice setup.”

But the Panthers stuck a dagger in just seconds later when they were given a penalty kick, and Misi issued a yellow card, for taking down a streaking James in the box. Backup keeper Natalie Stockham slipped on a pair of goalkeeper gloves but couldn’t stop junior Avery West’s shot from the spot. It was suddenly 2-0 with seconds to play in the first half.

“That, I think, is what took our girls out of the game,” Chasco said. “This is a sensitive bunch and it’s hard for them to bounce back when something like that happens. So I think the first goal kind of set them at that point where we are teetering — where we can either fall back or move forward — but I think the PK kind of took them off that edge.”

It didn’t help the Cougars’ effort that in the second half, the Panthers seemed to solve the problems that sophomore Yazmin Garcia was presenting all of the first half.

Anything the Cougars got going, it was starting — and usually ending — with Garcia.

“We actually tried to switch her up from one side to the other because we noticed they had one player on her all the time, so we tried to bring her to the other side to try to open that up,” Chasco said. “She is a player that makes something out of nothing.”

Kumasaka said her players didn’t settle in quick enough, either for much of the first half or the start of the second, and gave Garcia — and the rest of the Cougars — openings.

But once the Panthers found a rhythm, there was more possession and the play between James, Sanchez-Loyola and junior Chelsea Juarez-Flores gave Santa Rosa ample opportunities to score.

Misi, in goal for the Cougars, was tested all night — and she came up strong on a number of occasions to keep it close.

But it was Juarez-Flores finding Sanchez-Loyola in the box and a rare bobble by Misi that put the Panthers up 3-0 with 13 minutes to play.

Throughout the game, the Cougars struggled to contain Juarez-Flores, who, like James, seemed to break free from defenders to gain enough space to feed balls into the box.

Both James and Juarez-Flores made hay out of taking defenders all of the way to the end line before slotting a ball not straight across the face of the goal but back into the box, usually to a waiting Panther.

It was that rhythm thing again.

“This was a very important game because this is the hardest team we will be playing,” Sanchez-Loyola said.

James, playing in her first rivalry game against the Cougars, said she had little context for what to expect — so she took direction from upperclassmen.

“I’m a freshman, so they told me to just go hard — so I went hard,” James said.

At hal time, the Santa Rosa coaches told the Panthers that the Cougars would likely come out hard for the final 40 minutes. This game was too important and Rancho would not likely lie down.

The same will be true when these two meet again in Santa Rosa on Feb. 13.

Remember that last season, Santa Rosa beat Rancho 5-0 in their first meeting, only to fall 2-1 in the final league contest. Only a tie with Piner kept the Cougars from sharing a piece of the NBL-Redwood title that Santa Rosa took home.

Chasco remembers that. He said his girls do, too.

If he’s looking for a silver lining, it could be that Wednesday’s loss will be a painful reminder of what is at stake every time these two squads face off.

“It was important,” he said. “The girls need this, now, to have them go to senior night in Santa Rosa and show them who we really are, show the game we really play.

“We need that win. We definitely need that win.”

Something tells me that Santa Rosa will be giving themselves the same pep talk. After all, there is more at stake than just one game.

These two teams are making a case for which league they will compete in for the next two years. If that’s not motivation, I don’t know what is.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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