Fans and families lined up outside Bronco Field an hour and a half before kickoff, eager to save their spot to watch an all-Clovis matchup for the Central Section D-I girls’ soccer title.
It was a smart move on their part.
By the time Buchanan and Clovis North took the field Saturday, the bleachers were filled. Lawn chairs lined up goal post to goal post, and other spectators sat almost on the field’s edge, mere feet away from the action.
In a cheery and intense Valley title game atmosphere, No. 1 Clovis North struck first against No. 3 Buchanan and never looked back. The Broncos won, 2-1, earning back-to-back Division-I girls’ soccer championships.
Head coach Nick Pappanduros, without hesitation, said the 2021 Valley title is more special than 2020’s.
“Absolutely [it is], with the pandemic and then we had some injuries,” Pappanduros said. “We have some of the best players and it was ‘Next Woman Up’ every single time. Someone would go down and the next woman got back in it. It was a family this year. The girls picked each other up.”
Without injured Alabama-bound senior forward Carys Hall, Clovis North lost to Buchanan in the final game of the regular season, 2-0. Still without Hall in Saturday’s final, the Broncos saw production from their remaining eight seniors, including the school’s Female Athlete of the Year Emma Brown and volleyball star/goalkeeper Sydney Hancock.
“We knew we had the best team, just with our group of seniors,” Pappanduros said. “If we played our game… we knew we were going to come out with a victory.”
Bears head coach Jasara Gillette, her starting lineup containing multiple underclassmen, noted the difference in experience between both sides.
“Clovis North has been here the past three years,” Gillette said. “Most of my field is freshmen and sophomores. I knew coming in that this was going to be a nervous kind of moment.”
“We have strong seniors, but we also have a lot of youth in there, and our youth is hungry. The girls are coming in and this is all new to them. I think that after having this game, it won’t be such a nervous moment the next time that they’re here.”
In the 15th minute, Clovis North junior Alyssa Wheeler corralled a long pass from Hancock, passed the ball in the air to herself and took off on the attack. With Buchanan’s defenders trying to stay in front of her, Wheeler raced forward and unleashed a right-footed shot from about 25 yards out.
Buchanan’s goalkeeper stepped forward as Wheeler drove deeper into the attacking half, but Wheeler’s shot sailed over her head and into the net.
Clovis North extended its lead early in the second half as Buchanan’s goalkeeper made a save but dropped the ball, allowing senior Izzy Arballo to follow up with the goal.
Buchanan did not fold after the mistake. Trailing 2-0, Buchanan became more offensive and played with more confidence as the second half went on, according to Gillette.
“Our big thing was, we have nothing to lose,” Gillette said. “Once we were deep in the half, I said, ‘Let’s press, let’s show us, let’s give everything that we have.’ I think that we really turned it on.”
Buchanan sophomore Bailey Bracha scored a goal from the right side in the 71st minute, cutting Clovis North’s lead to 2-1. The Bears continued to press and nearly scored the game-tying goal in the 78th minute.
But Hancock, considered by Pappanduros to be the best goalkeeper in the Central Valley, made the leaping save.
Fittingly, a pair of seniors, Arballo and Hancock, made the title-clinching plays to ensure their high school careers ended with a Central Section championship.
“We have a group of nine seniors that led this team all year long,” Pappanduros said. “From February on, we were working hard and they earned this today. I’m so proud of this group of girls.”