A year ago, all Sequoia forward CeCe Santos Juaregui could do was sit and watch as her team went 1-1-1 in three games and finished runner-up to eventual Ocean Division champion South City as she was nursing a torn ACL in her left knee.
She didn’t know if she could have made a difference against the Warriors in 2018.
“They were a really strong team last year,” Santos Juaregui said.
This season, Santos Juaregui, a senior captain, definitely made a difference. She scored once in a 3-0 win over the Warriors on Jan. 22 to move into first place in the Ocean Division standings. In Tuesday’s regular-season finale, Santos-Juaregui scored twice to give the Cherokees a 3-1 win and clinch the PAL Ocean Division championship.
“Super satisfying. I’m super proud of the girls,” was how Santos-Juaregui described the feeling of winning the crown. “We came in with all of our energy. We knew we could do it.”
Leading 1-0 at halftime following a Bridget Carbonneau goal in the 28th minute, Santos-Juaregui pushed the Sequoia lead to 2-0 just three minutes into the second half as the Cherokees caught the Warriors on a counterattack.
The play started with a South City corner kick that Fatima Waldo-Garcia sent into the Sequoia penalty box. The ball pinballed around before Sequoia finally cleared it away with a long pass down the right sideline. Heather Benway latched onto it and, with her blazing speed, tore down the sideline with a defender on her shoulder.
She shook the South City player and cut in on goal. As she neared the end line, she pulled a pass back to the middle of the Warriors’ penalty box, where she found Santos Juaregui trailing. It was a simple matter of redirecting the ball on goal to give Sequoia a 2-0 advantage.
[Benway is] an amazing player. Super fast,” Santos Juaregui said. “Me and Heather have a really good chemistry. She knows where I’m going to be in the box.”
That familiarity paid off again in the 76th minute. After South City pulled one goal back on an Alex Arouxet-Jara unassisted strike in the 60th minute, Benway and Santos Juaregui hooked up again in a replay of their first combination.
Again, Benway received a pass on the right flank, raced past the defense, slotted a pass back to Santos Juaregui, who, again, slotted it home for the final goal of the match.
“[Benway is] so fast and has such good footwork,” said Sequoia head coach Melissa Schmidt of her sophomore wing. “We’ve seen her grow and now when she makes that run … she then has the skill to play the perfect pass.”
While the game featured the top two teams in the Ocean Division, Sequoia (8-1-1, 25 points). The Cherokees were two points up on South City (6-2-2, 20) and just needed a win or tie to clinch the title.
South City, on the other hand, needed nothing less than a victory to defend its title. So while it was Sequoia that applied the early pressure — earning a corner kick in the opening minute — South City eventually settled down and started to string passes together and control possession.
But it was the Cherokees who had the first real chance and they even started to celebrate when Celina Rincon Castaneda hammered a shot off the far right post that rebounded back across the face of the goal — but failed to cross the goal line.
In the 21st minute, Kira Spottiswood fed a perfect through ball to Carbonneau, who broke in on goal, only to have the South City defender get a piece of the ball on her shot that sent the ball wide of the goal.
Between those two chances, Sequoia goalkeeper Jennifer Billman was called on to keep South City off the board. The Warriors earned a free kick from 30 yards out and Waldo-Garcia drilled a low, line drive with Billman going to the ground to her left to make the save.
In the 19th minute, Billman made a routine save on a shot from 25 yards out and then had to battle Nani Jara on a 50-50 ball in the box before eventually earning the foul.
“[Billman] gives us so much confidence,” Schmidt said, adding that her defense has given up just six goals in 10 Ocean Division games.
“She comes up big, for sure.”
One South City mistake, however, resulted in Sequoia’s first goal of the game as the Warriors defense failed to clear the ball out of danger. Carbonneau, a senior, stole the ball just outside the South City penalty. She turned and fired a shot just inside the left post to give the Cherokees the lead.
Down 2-0, the Warriors climbed back into the game with their only goal in the 60th minute. This time, it was Sequoia that failed to clear the ball away and it was Arouxet-Jara who scored an unassisted goal off a scramble in front.
But when Santos Juaregui put away her second goal of the match, it all but iced the championship for the Cherokees.
Although her team just needed a tie for the title, Schmidt was pleased to see her team go and take the championship with the victory.
“You gotta get the win,” Schmidt said. “You want to take the title. That’s the fun stuff.”