Nicole Nunes’ high arcing shot from 22-yards away in the 70th minute floated just underneath the crossbar and into the back of the net. The sophomore’s strike pulled the Santa Clara Bruins (4-0-4) even at 1-1 with the Mountain View Spartans (6-1-2), capping off a thrilling second half.
For most of the afternoon Santa Clara trailed 1-0 after conceding just their third goal in nine games. Playing a new system with five defenders in the back has been a tough adjustment in recent games for Santa Clara, but the Bruins managed to turn things around in the second half against one of the best teams in the country.
“I don’t know why, but we’re a second half team,” remarked Bruins Head Coach Brad Comstock after the game. “And our second half [today] was just awesome.”
In the first half Santa Clara seemed to come out tentative against their formidable opponent. The Spartans rank fourth in California and 10th in the nation according to Maxpreps. While it was certainly the toughest test of Santa Clara’s season thus far, the Spartans did come into the game with a loss during league season, having fallen 2-0 to Palo Alto. The Bruins on the other hand tied Palo Alto in their first matchup. With that information at hand, this game certainly lived up to expectations. Two strong teams going toe-to-toe.
“[Mountain View] is a hell of a team,” noted Comstock. “Every single one of their girls plays at an elite level.”
Mountain View’s passing was phenomenal with seemingly every pass perfectly to a teammate’s foot, but come the second half the Bruins came out determined. After a first half where Mountain View controlled the ball for about 60 percent of the time, the Bruins carried the play for about 70 percent of the action in the second half.
Perhaps playing from behind helped the Bruins become more aggressive in the second half. The new formation of five defenders leaves gaps on the wings and Mountain View exploited said gaps in the first half. The Santa Clara midfielders had a tough time getting the ball up to their forwards in the first 40 minutes.
“It’s definitely harder when you don’t have anyone on the sides of you,” commented senior midfielder Katie Bonvicino. “You’re constantly having to look in the middle.”
While the open space on the wings aided the Spartans early, Santa Clara’s need to force the issue in order to find an equalizer seemed to help alleviate the problem. Most notably senior defenders Haley Levene and Gabriella Medina took more of a responsibility to attack upfield despite being part of the back line. Levene has been center back all season, but Medina has played more of a midfield role earlier in the year.
With the two seniors activating forward, it helped midfielders Bonvicino and Maddie Ambelang get the ball more frequently up top to Santa Clara’s duo of six-feet-tall forwards Ellie Mujushi and Hannah Mathews.
Prior to the tying goal, the Bruins created a number of opportunities. First was a dangerous header opportunity off a set piece from the right sideline just a few years outside the 18-yard box. Another chance saw Mujushi and Mathews on a two-on-one, but Mathews’ pass sailed high over Mujushi’s head when perhaps she should have sent it along the ground a few seconds earlier. Yet another chance came with Nunes and Mathews on a give-and-go. The last pass from Nunes sprung Mathews for a decent chance, but Mujushi might have been in an even better position to score on the opposite side.
The Bruins would finally score on a bit of a broken play. Mujushi played a ball into the box where there was a collision as Santa Clara’s versatile junior Frida Ramirez got knocked down. While Bruins fans in the stands were clamoring for a penalty kick, the ball caromed loose to the other side just a few yards outside the box where Nunes was all alone. With the ball rolling towards her, Nunes lofted the shot without even taking a single touch to settle the ball.
“I was just in the moment,” recalled Nunes on her goal. “I saw the ball popped out and just went for it.”
While Nunes may have just gone on gut instinct, that instinct may have been aided by Bruins assistant coach Graham Hampton, who reminded the girls at halftime to shoot high.
The Bruins rely on Nunes to score, and the sophomore had been struggling a bit, so it was a huge goal for her as the playoffs are just a few weeks away. Santa Clara needs to find ways to score as it has been their defense and goalkeeper keeping them in games. Samantha Coelho has been rock solid for the Bruins all season long and has posted six shutouts in her last nine games. Is this the best she’s ever played?
“I come here every game and just try to be better than the last game,” commented Coelho, who has played goalie as long as she can remember. “I feel like [today] could have been one of my better games, but I feel like I can play better games later on too.”
Santa Clara has four games remaining before playoffs, including a rematch with the Spartans on Feb. 14.