Sunset girls soccer advances to 6A quarters with Canby win
Survival was Sunset's only option.
The referees didn't do the Apollos any favors, pulling bizarre calls out of the blue, handing out cards like ticket-hungry traffic cops and making a spectacle out of the second round of the Class 6A playoffs. Canby was an unsurprisingly tough-as-grease opponent and its traveling crowd of parents and fans was both carrying and cutting with opinions and off-the-cuff comments.
It was a lot to overcome. It wasn't always easy on the eyes. But thanks to the heroics of freshman Malea Cesar and the inherent pressure to keep aiming at the 6A semis, the Apollos advanced. Trailing 2-1 late in the second half, Cesar put home a penalty kick to tie it up 2-2. Then, when the game went to overtime, Cesar crushed home the go-ahead goal to give Sunset a 3-2 lead and ultimate 3-2 second-round win.
The hard-earned victory gave Sunset a shot at vindication against Mountainside in the quarterfinals. The No. 4 Mavs, in their first year playing at the varsity level, sunk Sunset 4-1 in a game where Mountainside junior Nedya Sawan sowed up her Metro League Player of the Year award with two goals. More so this year than the previous two, the Apollos have been searching for peace of mind on the pitch. Talent hasn't been the issue. It's been finding the optimal lineup that can be relied on. It's been a process, even in the playoffs with two too-close-for-comfort wins, but Sunset is making strides.
"We've had a lot of different formations and different players starting, but I think we've finally found what works for us and who plays well together and who plays best where," Sunset junior Stephanie Niebergall said. "There's so much pressure. We've made it to the finals the past two years. We haven't lost in the quarters for a long time. I think we all know we can win against Mountainside."
"The past two years, making it to the (state) finals, we don't want to lose in the first couple of rounds," Sunset sophomore defender Kelsey Wenckus said. "If we're on our game, we'll be fine. But if we play timid we're not going to play well. Last time that's how they got to us and how they scored all of those goals."
Niebergall scored the first goal of the game on a brilliant, high degree of difficulty sliding bender between two Cougars that gave Sunset a 1-0 lead. The first-team all-Metro selection engaged in a sweet give-and-go with Sam Walton along the right side of the pitch to create the scoring opportunity.
Canby didn't step aside for the state runner-ups, though. A questionable hand ball call on Niebergall outside the 10-yard line gave Canby a free kick from the 12-yard line. The Cougars swung the ball over the five-person Apollo wall, only to have the ball sail over the Sunset keeper's head and off the post. Sunset's good fortune ran out, however, as Canby cornered the rebound and headed it home to tie it up 1-1 with five minutes left in the first half.
And midway through the second half, Canby scored on a beautiful free kick, turning down a shot on goal for a drop off pass to a runner down the middle of the field who sliced through the crammed in Apollo defense and coolly kicked home the go-ahead goal with 23:33 left in the second half.
Suddenly, Sunset was staring at a 2-1 deficit in a match where the momentum had shifted completely. The threat of elimination lingered for another 14 minutes until Niebergall came up with some might call a season-saving play on the Apollos' part. Running stride-for-stride with a Cougar defender for a 50-50 ball, the junior Apollo was inadvertently kicked in the leg and went to the ground. The same head referee who ruled Niebergall touched the ball with her hands earlier in the game, deemed that the Apollo was fouled in the box, resulting in a penalty kick for Cesar, who cooly kicked home the bullet to tie it up 2-2. Seven minutes later, Sunset was headed to extra time thanks to Niebergall sacrificing her own well being for the team.
"It was painful at first and then I fell just because I was off-balance and already in the air, but when I was down (on the ground), I was fine," Niebergall said.
In the fifth minute of overtime Cesar took a touch from about the eight-yard line, pinned the spinning ball with her left foot, loaded up and jump kicked a shot that hit the crossbar but fortuitously dropped straight down and took an Apollo bounce into the net as the Canby goalie looked on in horror, mitted hands covering her face in sadness. For a newcomer to come in as a listed defensive player and put home the equalizer and ultimately the game-winner was gigantic for the Apollos.
"She's insane," Niebergall said of Cesar. "She's been a huge help to our team this year."
"That was huge, but it also wasn't surprising coming from Malea," Wenckus added. "She's a really good player and has really blossomed a lot this year. We needed that."