The West Bay Athletic League Foothill Division girls’ soccer title has gone through Menlo School for the last half decade.
Going into their second league game of the season against rival Sacred Heart Prep Thursday, the Knights had lost only five games since the 2015 league season and hadn’t lost to a WBAL opponent since the 2020 campaign.
SHP made it six losses.
Trailing 1-0 at halftime and not having a lot to show for it, the Gators came out in the second half, kept up the pressure on the Menlo defense and scored a pair of goals to come away with a 2-1 win in their Foothill Division opener.
“I think our kids were a little nervous starting out,” said SHP head coach Ramiro Arredondo. “It’s been three or four years since our last win here (at Menlo). It feels good for the kids.”
Menlo head coach Ross Ireland can only wonder what could have been. Despite scoring just three minutes into the game and consistently putting pressure on the SHP defense and penalty box, the Knights could not find the back of the net again.
“We started out on the front foot and had them rattled,” Ireland said. “We didn’t take advantage in the final third.”
Menlo (0-1 WBAL Foothill, 3-3 overall) got off to a quick start, scoring on the first chance of the game just three minutes in. Francesca Prescott ran onto a through ball on the left flank and carried it toward the end line. She cut a pass back to middle of the penalty box, where she found Sasha Bernthal, who got a shot off before the defender could close and found the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.
The Knights continued to buzz around the SHP penalty box for the rest of the half, but the SHP defense righted itself and cut off most of Menlo’s attacks.
Gators’ senior sweeper Hadley Twichell was especially active, shutting down forays along the flanks the rest of the half. It was only the second game of the season for Hadley as she is just rounding into form following a concussion.
Combining with center back Ellie Brew, another senior, the SHP defensive played with an effective calm despite being under constant pressure.
“Bend don’t break,” Arredondo said.
While the Gators defense was neutralizing the Menlo attack, the Knights defense was doing the same to the SHP offense. The Gators struggled to get the ball to the feet of their playmakers.
As far as Arredondo was concerned, it was just a matter of time before his team got up into the attack. Once Molly Tinsley got going in the second half, it seemed to perk up the Gators’ offense.
After being a non-factor for most of the first half, Tinsley made her presence felt early in the second. She won a challenge just outside the Menlo penalty box before launching a shot over the top of the goal in the 52nd minute.
Suddenly, it was the Gators who were on the front foot and the Menlo defense was in retreat.
“They play high pressure,” Ireland said. “It wore us down.”
In the 57th minute, SHP (1-0, 5-5-1) found the equalizer. Earning a free kick 20 yards from goal just to the left of center, Megan Sweeney stepped up to take the free kick, sending her attempt around the wall and past the outstretched hand of Menlo goalkeeper Helen Barkley. She managed to get a hand on it, but couldn’t stop the shot from finding the far right side netting.
“When she was warming up today, she hit that exact same shot,” Arredondo said.
Said Ireland: “It was a beautiful strike and that emboldened them.”
A minute later, Tinsley was back in on goal. With a defender on her shoulder, she still managed to get off a strong shot that was eaten up by Barkley. In the 62nd minute, it appeared Tinsley had broken the tie. After a long run down the left flank, she cut back against the defender to create a wide open space and look at goal.
But she pulled her shot ever so slightly to the left and what looked like a sure-fire goal instead clanged off the left post.
“We told her to be patient,” Arredondo said of Tinsley, a sophomore.
He also told her the maintain her spacing. Arredondo didn’t want Tinsley dropping too far back to receive the ball and instead let the ball come to her.
But it was that spacing between midfield and forward that enabled the Gators to surprise the Knights with the winning goal.
The space created allowed SHP midfielder Carly Gee to step into a ball about 45 yards from goal and with Barkley creeping a little too far off her goal line, managed to chip a shot over the goalkeeper and under the crossbar for the go-ahead goal in the 63rd minute.
The Knights did not concede, however. They couldn’t quite take advantage of a near disastrous bobble by SHP goalkeeper Sofia Moretti and then, in stoppage time, Hannah Gorospe sent a diagonal pass to the right, where Ellie El Fishawy ran onto it, with only Moretti to beat.
But Moretti came confidently off her line to cut down the angle and smothered El Fishawy’s shot to preserve the victory.
Despite the rare league loss, Ireland said the Knights at least get another crack at the Gators later in the season.
“There are two games in the series,” Ireland said, referring to the fact each team plays twice in the WBAL.
“We’ll go there (to SHP) expecting to win.”