Valley Catholic girls soccer loses to North Valley in 4A title game

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic forward Kate MacNaughton and midfielder Taylor Menkens celebrate Menkens goal against North Valley.

All year long, the Valley Catholic girls soccer team defied the odds.

In a season that was supposed to be geared toward rebuilding, the Valiants ran roughshod over the Cowapa League, outscoring their conference counterparts by a combined 56-3 count en route to a league title.

With 10 seniors graduated from last year Valley’s assumed lack of experience would presumably rear its ugly head in the postseason, as it tends to do in the playoffs. Yet, the young Valiants demonstrated a resolved will and a cool moxie under pressure against bigger, more seasoned foes and reached the Class 4A state championship game at Liberty High School.

Possibly against North Valley — a team that beat Valley 3-1 in the non-league action — the other shoe would drop and the championship game platform would be too much for the Valiants to tackle.

Yet, there were the Valiants, admittedly a bit nervous playing in front a big crowd, but nonetheless fighting the favored Vikings with grit and guile and grabbed a 1-0 halftime lead.

For whatever reason, however, it wasn’t Valley’s destiny to to win on Saturday. It was not from a lack of effort, toil or commitment, all of which the Valiants put on display in the second half. North Valley was the No. 1 team in 4A all season for a multitude of rationales and pulled away with two second half goals, the latter of which came with 5 minutes and 30 seconds left in regulation.

Valley (14-4), lost 2-1 to North Valley (18-0) of Grants Pass in the 4A state title game, bringing its unforeseen season to an unceremonious end. At the same time, while the tears fell and unhappy hugs were exchanged, there was a sense of accomplishment as well as a swell of pride that started to spread amongst the Valiants as they greeted their large fan base.

“We didn’t expect to get this far in the first place, so it’s awesome that we did,” said Valley Catholic junior goalie Noelle Mannen. “This is the best team chemistry I’ve ever had on a soccer team that I’ve played on. That was a huge factor in how well we did. Especially being so young and inexperienced, everyone getting along so well really helped us succeed.”

“We’re incredibly proud,” said Valley Catholic junior forward Callie Kawaguchi. “We didn’t think we would make it this far and yeah it sucks to not take home a win, but if you think about our season we’ve improved so much. Mostly, we had faith in ourselves and the young players started to get confidence. Our mentality really changed, going from a team that might not do much to almost winning a championship.”

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic junior goalie Noelle Mannen stops a North Valley shot in the Class 4A state championship game.

In the first half, battling butterflies in front of a packed Liberty High grandstand littered with fans from Valley Catholic and North Valley, Valley sophomore forward Kate McNaughton calmly orbited the ball from the left side of the pitch to a wide open Taylor Menkens, the most lethal Valiant on the field. With no defender in her path, Menkens bopped a bullet from 22 yards out that stayed on a frozen rope from the tip of her right cleat all the way to the upper shelf of the net to give Valley a 1-0 lead midway through the first half. It was a highlight worthy of a top-10 play nomination, a projectile rocket that turned North Valley goalie Tatiana Kelly to sand with its hurtling velocity and accuracy. In fact, both teams almost seemed entranced by the ball’s low-lying, heat-seeking flight all the way into the goal.

“I knew I could get it in the top corner if I had the chance,” said Menkens. “I saw the open goal and went for it. I wanted to get power on the shot, but I didn’t want it to go straight up. I just practice that shot over and over every day and it paid off.”

Mannen was a one-player defensive stopper at goalie in the first half, stoning North Valley sophomore superstar Baylee Touey three times with fearless fly outs that cut down the explosive forward before she could get within close scoring range.

“Noelle was amazing,” said Menkens. “She was on her line and ready to come out whenever and sacrificed herself for a lot a things.”

“We knew (Touey) was their best player,” said Mannen. “She’s very fast and aggressive, so everyone on defense did a great job of being ready for her and defending to her strengths.”

With nothing to lose and all the pressure squarely on undefeated, highly advocated North Valley, Valley came out the gates and shocked the Vikings in the first 40 minutes of action and sustained a 1-0 halftime lead.

“We came with the mentality of ‘We’re supposed to lose, so go out there and have fun,’” said Mannen. “We were the underdog. We’ve improved so much from the first time we played them, so we wanted to prove how we are now and not worry about anything other than having fun.”

However, as great players are prone to do, Touey couldn’t be held down for long. Less than four minutes into the second half, Touey sprinted past two Valiant defenders, but rather than take Mannen head on again the speedy sophomore pulled up from the 18-yard line and discharged a detonative right-footed bullet over the Valiant keeper’s head to tie it 1-1.

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic junior Callie Kawaguchi watches her shot head toward the net against North Valley.

Perhaps Valley’s best chance to retake the lead came on one of the better hustle plays you’ll find. North Valley’s defused a seemingly harmless Valiant attack, but Kawaguchi surprised the Viking defense when she sprinted in from her forward spot and poked the ball away from North Valley defender Lacy Banuelos and Kelly, who came out from the goalie box to cuff the ball. With both Vikings out of position and the goal completely free, Kawaguchi kicked the ball toward the open net. However, Banuelos and Kelly did just enough to inhibit Kawaguchi from getting the needed power on the ball and rather than concede the go-ahead goal, Kelly galloped back to the net and stopped the ball before it could cross the goal line.

“I just kept going even though I didn’t think I’d make it,” said Kawaguchi with a smile. “I tried to get on a toe on it and I was kind of shock when I did, so I stopped moving when I should have kept moving. But, it wasn’t a ball I thought I was going to get, anyways.”

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic junior midfielder Taylor Menkens makes her way toward the goal against North Valley.

Mannen made her most spectacular save of the night when the Touey sent a shot a high that the 5-foot-4 keeper jumped and tipped away at the cross bar. But, Valley couldn’t clear the ball in time, and as Mannen regained her footing and tried to dive and make the game-saving stop, North Valley’s Haley Kersten booted home to the go-ahead score on the rebound attempt to go up 2-1. From there, Valley didn’t put a shot on goal as Touey and company dropped back defensively, controlled possession and pushed the ball back to their side of the pitch for the final five minutes of play.

Valley reached an echelon that few saw coming. While some of the Valiants’ team in the past — particularly the 2013-2015 squads that were loaded with stars and expected to do great things — this youthful Valley crew snuck up on the state and verified that youth could be served even at the highest level of 4A girls soccer.

“We were happy to be here,” said Kawaguchi. “We just wanted to work our hardest and have fun with it. It’s an amazing experience to be here and we just wanted to soak it all up. It didn’t come out the way we wanted to, but just being here and playing was amazing.”

And better yet, sans senior defender Mary Oehler, the Valiants are slated to return all of their starters including Mannen, Menkens and Kawaguchi next fall. Interestingly enough, North Valley is only losing two seniors and will bring back Touey, Banuelos, Kersten and Kelly, which sets up a well within reason rematch in 2017. Better yet, Valley and North Valley lock horns in the rivals’ season-opener next September.

“I think it’s good that everybody got a taste of this,” said Mannen. “We can all have that desire to get back here next year and have that desire to have a different outcome.”

“It’s a huge motivator,” added Kawaguchi. “We’re excited to come out even harder. Now we know what to do. We’ll just work from here. There’s no going back. We’ll just get better. We have the skill we need, we just have to grow mentally.”

“We’re going to come back as a unit and even stronger,” said Menkens. “I’m really excited for the future. We just have to learn that it’s just a game and we can’t come out so nervous. Just being so young, we were nervous. But we just to realize it’s another soccer game where we want to win for each other.”

TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Valley Catholic junior Callie Kawaguchi walks off the field as North Valley celebrates its Class 4A state championship win on Saturday.

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