Nathan Mollat/Daily Journal
Sacred Heart Prep's Philip Petrakian heads the ball away during the Gators' 1-0 win over Menlo School Friday.
The Sacred Heart Prep boys’ soccer team managed only one win during the non-league portion of their schedule as the Gators waited for the return of some key players who were finishing up the football season.
It was during that 1-4-1 start that coach Armando del Rio believes the foundation for his team was forged.
“Our preseason schedule was pretty difficult,” del Rio said. “It kind of created this blue-collar, in-the-trenches team.”
Del Rio believes that, more than anything else, helped his team in a key West Bay Athletic League showdown against rival Menlo School. With emotions already running high, Sacred Heart Prep outworked the Knights just enough to pull out a 1-0 win in a steady drizzle Friday afternoon.
“I do think this year’s team is pretty gritty and built for this kind of game,” del Rio said.
The win increased the distance between Sacred Heart Prep (10-0 WBAL, 11-4-1 overall) and Menlo (7-2-1) in the WBAL standings. Coming into the game, the Knights trailed the Gators by five points. The Gators increased that advantage to eight points with four games remaining in the regular season.
SHP played its best soccer in the opening 20 minutes of the game, dominating possession and limiting Menlo’s touches on the ball. The Knights were locked into their end for most of that time and, with that much time defending, the chances are good the more offensive team will eventually capitalize.
Which is precisely what happened. The Gators had a number of dangerous chances in the opening minutes before they finally found the back of the net.
The goal was triggered on a throw-in by Isaac Polkinhorne deep in the Menlo end. He threw the ball short to Philip Petrakian, who touched it right back to Polkinhorne.
He took a small touch to control the ball before launching a long pass to the far back post. Waiting there was Ricky Grau, who headed the ball back across the goal face and into the left corner of the net.
“If we could play the whole game like we did the first 20 minutes, I’d be really happy,” del Rio said. “I thought our level dropped a little (following the goal). I think we got a little too comfortable.”
It wasn’t going to be that easy, however. Following the goal, Menlo picked up its play and evened out possession for the rest of the half. The Gators had a few more chances before the halftime whistle, while the Gators’ defense kept most of the Knights’ shot attempts on the perimeter.
Neither team could mount much offense in the second half and the game got a little choppy as the ball skidded around the slick artificial turf. SHP striker Andrew Segre gave the Menlo defensive line some fits with his speed, but the Knights always managed to recover and defuse the danger.
Menlo didn’t have much success either, as the Knights were limited to mostly perimeter shots again.
“Most of their shots were from 18 (yards) and out, so that was good,” del Rio said. “I was OK defending more.”
Menlo’s best chances to get the equalizer came in the final minutes of the game as the Knights earned two corner kicks within seconds of each other and, despite some scrambling in the SHP box, the Gators remained calm and eventually cleared the ball away, preserving the victory.
It was the 12th straight game Menlo has failed to beat SHP. The Gators have never lost to their rival since SHP moved its soccer program from the fall to winter season.
“We’re 10-0-2 against Menlo,” del Rio said. “We definitely tell our boys about that.”