The Santa Maria Saints soared into the second round, grounding the Arroyo Grande Eagles in a 2-0 victory in the opening round of the CIF Southern Section Division 2 playoffs on Saturday.
“They are a tough team and they’ve always had a good program,” Santa Maria coach Eduardo Cuna said of Arroyo Grande. “We anticipated having a good matchup.”
In what was a physical match between both squads, the Saints (20-2-3) were quick to show their strength as Brayant Aquino made a quick strike to the cage, finding the back of the net in the 8th minute to put Santa Maria up 1-0 over Arroyo Grande (14-8-0).
“It was good triangulation between three of my guys,” Cuna said. “Pass it to the middle, back out and then cross back in and Aquino was ready for it. It’s something we practice all the time.”
The battle for the ball continued throughout the first half as Santa Maria and Arroyo Grande maintained the physical play, resulting in a number of players hitting the turf in the cold conditions.
“It’s a total disadvantage for us because we do have a younger team,” said Arroyo Grande coach Eliseo Romero. “We had three starting freshmen. When it became physical, we face challenges with physical play due to our smaller size.”
Even being outmatched physically, the Eagles kept looking for opportunities to even the score against the Saints. In the 24th minute, Arroyo Grande’s Cesar Alvarez had a shot broken up by Santa Maria’s Miguel Tena. The Eagles’ Gopala Sauer went on a breakaway in the 36th minute but was unable to stay ahead of the Saints, who stopped the attack and prevented the goal.
“We tried to hold possession and put the ball on the ground but we struggled with that,” Romero said.
Looking to give the Saints a 2-0 lead going into halftime, Samuel Tena took a clear shot at the goal in stoppage time that sailed over the cage.
“At this time of year you have to be physically fit. When it came to skill, we were able to move the ball from side to side,” Cuna said.
The Saints defense took charge in the second half, giving Santa Maria more time to control the ball on offense as the referees continued to allow both teams to play physical.
“We like to keep it going, we don’t like that stop and go, stop and go,” Cuna said. “It will mess up the flow of your game. We want to keep the ball rolling.”
Santa Maria had a number of opportunities to expand on its’ lead in the second half, including a free kick issued to Diego Villagran in the 42nd minute that missed just left of the post.
As the Saints continued to apply pressure to the young Eagles, Jorge Carmona gave Santa Maria the comfort goal Cuna was looking for to close out the match.
“It was crucial.” Cuna said about Carmona’s goal. “He has been coming through for us all though the year. He came at the right moment to seal the deal for us.”
Catching Arroyo Grande’s goalkeeper off-balance on a cross back from Marino Corona, Carmona slipped the ball past Josue Celio on the backside to give Santa Maria a 2-0 lead in the 74th minute.
“I saw Corona open, so I gave him the ball and he touched it back at the right moment,” Carmona said about the exchange before the goal.
On the road for the second round, Santa Maria travel to Riverside to battle the Poly High School Bears at 3 p.m. on Wednesday.
Hart 2, Cabrillo 1, OT
Cabrillo's Adrian Calderon scored on a beautiful free kick in the first half, but the Indians scored once in regulation and two minutes into the first overtime period to take 2-1 win over the Conqs in the first round of the Division 4 playoffs.
The game was played at Pioneer Valley High School due to field conditions in the Lompoc Valley.