SAN JOSE - With the NorCal Division 1 title on the line and momentum shifting to the other side, the Bellarmine soccer team needed a big play. And who better to provide it then the center back pairing that has been so crucial to the team's dynamic postseason run.
Just moments after conceding a dangerous free kick that could have resulted in a game-winner for Jesuit, senior center back Casey Jaeb rose high to meet a corner kick from junior midfielder Gabi Martinez in the 69th minute. His header defected off the left post and his center back partner, sophomore Tate Hackett, got to the ball first and blasted it into the roof of the net to give Bellarmine a 2-1 win over Jesuit for the NorCal Division 1 championship.
"We spent a lot of time this year working on set pieces and corners, even having plays with certain names, so it seemed right for us to score that way to win it all," said Bellarmine coach Conor Salcido.
Heading into the final, the Bells (21-2-3) had conceded just two goals en route to five straight postseason wins. And just five minutes into the match, they had to deal with what appeared to be a serious knee injury to starting center back Joey Marenin, moving Jaeb from right back into the center.
Midway through the second half, Jaeb was whistled for a foul against Jesuit midfielder Luke Bone just outside the box, setting up a dangerous situation that Jaeb himself could not defend because he had to step off the field because of the ensuing yellow card.
Dangerous attacking midfielder Chris Meyers had a chance to give his team the lead but his well-taken free kick was deflected by the wall for a corner kick, which didn’t amount to anything. Bellarmine had avoided the danger and just a few minutes later – after absorbing more pressure from the Marauders – took advantage of their own set piece opportunity for the win.
"Our team has experienced quite a bit of injury this season, and guys have stepped up to fill the role of those who were sidelined. We were missing two starters (in the NorCal final), and for our guys to have the ability to step up and have confidence in one another, helped us play without skipping a beat," Salcido added. "As a coach it’s a blessing to have so many options when something unexpected happens like an injury, to call on another player to fill that role. I believe our depth on our team is one of the best; we don’t just ride our starters the whole game, because we have so many talented players."
Bellarmine led 1-0 at halftime, but Jesuit (25-3-3) came on strong in the second half led by Bone, Meyers and towering sophomore striker Elijah Beverley. The trio combined for a sharp goal in the 51st minute when Bone played the ball to Beverley, who had checked into the middle from the right. Beverley received the ball just outside the penalty area and immediately played a through ball to the left to Meyers, who timed his run perfectly and slotted the ball into the lower left corner to make it 1-1.
Jesuit pressed forward for the winner but left back Max Morris nearly gave Bellarmine the lead in the 54th minute when he ripped a left-footed shot from 25 yards out that went just over the bar.
Bellarmine controlled most of the first half and took a well-deserved 1-0 lead in the 14th minute. Starting center forward Blaze Strangio got free on the right sideline and played a low cross to senior Mario Barocio, who cut the ball to his right and rolled the ball in from a few yards out.
The back four of Jaeb, Hackett, Marenin and Morris was key to Bellarmine’s success in the postseason. Bellarmine shut out Palo Alto, Watsonville and Branham on the way to its first CCS Open title, which was clinched when Jaeb set up the game’s only goal with an excellent run. And although the Bells do graduate 16 seniors, they should be set up for another run next year with the likes of Hackett, sophomore forward Uriel Morales, Martinez, and sophomore center midfielder Yoni Aidlberg.
"What made this championship all the more special, is that this group has bonded through a lot of adversity off the field. During high school, two people who were close friends with many on the team passed away, then one of our seniors had brain surgery sophomore year to get rid of a tumor, and another senior teammate had open heart surgery during this season," Jaeb said. "What also made this team special is the talented younger players who really stepped up and contributed in huge ways. Under the leadership of our awesome coaching staff, we developed a great team dynamic throughout the season that fostered a style of team play that I believe set us apart down the stretch."
Jesuit, which reached the final by defeating Branham 4-1 and Berkeley in penalty kicks, returns three of its top scorers in Meyers (19 goals, 19 assists), junior Matt Kahn (14, 7) and Beverley (9, 8).