LONG BEACH – Lightning struck twice for the JSerra boys soccer team en route to redemptive championship gold on Saturday, Feb. 25.
After the first half was paused for a 45-minute lightning delay, the top-seeded Lions scored twice in the first two minutes after the restart to shock Sunny Hills, 2-0, and capture the CIF-SS Division 1 championship at Veterans Stadium in Long Beach.
JSerra played in its second consecutive CIF-SS Final, after losing the Division 1 title to Trinity League rival Servite last season. This year, the Trinity League champion Lions dominated the Division 1 field as the No. 1 seed to capture the program’s second CIF-SS championship. JSerra last won in its first CIF-SS Final in 2010.
“It’s such resilience,” JSerra coach Erik Kirsch said. “We wrote a culture code, and those are culture champions. That’s the difference this year. We had a lot of guys that bought into each other, regardless of the high-performance guys. This group learned we’re going need a little more than good players and good performance. We’re going to need guys that are so tight.”
JSerra (17-1-1) relied on that tight bond to maintain its focus coming out of the weather delay and to turn away a stiff Sunny Hills challenge in the second half.
“It took a lot of courage,” JSerra senior captain Keenai Braun said. “I’m beyond blessed, beyond happy. I knew that this year, this was the year we’d come back and win it all.”
JSerra dictated the game from the opening kickoff and earned five corner kicks in the first 23 minutes, which resulted in plenty of pressure but no goals.
The game was stopped at the 30th minute, as lightning was visible in the area, and after a 45-minute delay, JSerra immediately got to work.
Play resumed with a long throw-in from the Lions that bounced off a Sunny Hills defender in the box and right into the path of sophomore Angel Reyes, who zinged the ball to the far corner to put JSerra ahead, 1-0.
Two minutes later, sophomore Tanner Casey cashed in on a feed from Nathan Aquino to put JSerra ahead by two and leave Sunny Hills stunned.
“It was a bummer, because we were in flow,” Braun said of the lightning delay/. “We wanted to win. We gathered our thoughts, and got back into it.”
JSerra hit the post a minute later to send another scare into the Lancers, but the difference remained two goals into halftime.
The second half became a bit more of a slog, as the wicked Southern California weather whipped into Long Beach. Heavy rains and strong winds forced a more physical, direct game on both teams.
Sunny Hills finally found its stride in the 60th minute and brought waves of pressure on JSerra over the final twenty minutes.
Sunny Hills’ best chance came with four minutes remaining on a corner kick that JSerra just could not clear from the box. However, the Lions stepped up for block after scrambling block, and goalkeeper Noah Nesson pounced on a sequence-ending save to maintain the shutout and clinch the CIF-SS title.
“It feels great,” said senior captain Sidney Dina holding the championship plaque postgame. “Knowing that last year it was snagged from us. Holding it now, it feels so good.”
JSerra still has mountains to climb, as the CIF Southern California Regional championships begin next week. The brackets will be released on Sunday, Feb. 26.