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GIRLS SOCCER : Gahr continues rare strong start to season, dominate Whitney

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

A pair of area girls soccer teams who might end long playoff droughts met last Thursday with a chance to prove that they are worthy of finally playing extra soccer beyond the regular season. Backed by a dominating second half, both offensively and defensively, Gahr High knocked off Whitney High 4-1 to improve to 5-1 at the time. Add a pair of shutout wins last Saturday in the Best in the West Tournament, and the Lady Gladiators ended last week having played five games in six days, all wins, with 13 goals scored and four shutouts.

“We’ve got three freshmen on the team, two that play a lot; two that sometimes start,” said Gahr head coach Martin Henry. “It’s going to be taxing, but they need to take care of themselves. They’ve got to eat, sleep…we’re going to take tomorrow off completely. I’ve tried to sub as much as I can, and I think that’s helped a little bit.”

At 7-1 entering this past Tuesday’s home game with Cerritos High, the Lady Gladiators have already matched last season’s win total. The last time any Gahr team reached double digits in victories was the 2006-2007 season (11-5-2). In addition, Gahr has gone 16 straight seasons without a trip to the CIF-Southern Section playoffs.

It was the host Lady Wildcats who struck first as senior forward Alyssa Menjivar took a pass from senior forward Alyssa Serrano and put the ball past senior goalkeeper Ashley Correia four minutes in. After that, Gahr’s defense took over and the offense immediately went to work.

Two minutes later, junior forward Nicholette Palomo assisted on sophomore forward Kayla Berneal’s first of two goals in the game. 

While there wouldn’t be another goal in the first half, Whitney had two more legitimate chances to take the lead. In the 23rdminute, a long-range free kick from Serrano sailed above the crossbar. Then in the 33rdminute, Correia made a punch save off a corner kick and junior midfielder Roshni Powers’ shot on the rebound barely went to the right of the net.

“I just think that the girls came out with the right mentality,” said Whitney first-year head coach Miguel Mendoza. “In the second half, it seemed like our fitness became a factor. That’s when Gahr started to take advantage of that. They were a good opponent; they tested us a lot in the back and they were able to get some successful goals in.”

Gahr took the lead for good in the 54thminute when Palomo took a free kick a few yards from the penalty arc and the ball just snuck under the outstretched arms of Whitney sophomore goalkeeper Ankitha Veguswamy by the right post. Palomo added her second goal in the 65thminute and three minutes later, Berneal got loose on a breakaway and made it 4-1 as the ball trickled in on the soft, wet pitch.

“I think we were trying to be too cute in the first half, and the effort was much better [in the second half],” Henry said. 

“It was a bit of a challenge, to be honest,” Mendoza said of his team defending Palomo. “We had some adjustments going into the second half about not allowing her to have that much space; not too much time on the ball. That’s what we tried doing. It looked like for the most part of the second half, that’s what [Gahr] was able to accomplish.”

Gahr outshot Whitney 15-5 and the Lady Wildcats got all their shots in the first half. This was also a meeting of two of the area’s underrated players in Menjivar and Palomo. The former has been noting short of a scoring machine for Whitney during her high school career while Palomo leads the Lady Gladiators with 10 goals. She has scored in six of the eight games.

“She is quicker, smarter, she’s a year older,” Henry said. “She has a year more of club under her belt and she is definitely a special talent. She’s got some speed that you don’t see all throughout the league for sure.”

“Ally is a really great player, but what allows her to be successful is the other players she has around her,” Mendoza said of Menjivar. “They’re able to put her in great situations on the field so that way she cannot have so much load on her. But she’s been a tremendous player for us, and she’s been a big part of our success.”

Whitney would blast Yeshiva University of Los Angeles 12-0 this past Monday and visited Bellflower High on Dec. 19 for the final scheduled game of the month while Gahr, which tied Cerritos High 1-1 this past Tuesday evening, visited Valley Christian High on Dec. 19 and will wrap up play in the Best in the West Tournament on Saturday with a pair of games. 

“We never lose hope as far as making playoffs,” Mendoza said. “That’s our biggest goal for this year. That is something that we’re all trying to get on the same page with, and the girls are starting to come along with that.”

“We hope so, we hope so, and I think that their confidence is up, and it should be,” Henry said of possibly getting to the playoffs in February. “They’re working hard, and we’ll see. We have a tough league. It’s going to be a fight no matter what. No matter how well we’re playing, our league is loaded. But this is one of the best starts we’ve had, and we’ve got some good [non-league games], hopefully getting us ready for that.”