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Knights snare D7 crown in PK shootout
Ripon Christian coach Kevin Tameling, right, runs onto the field with his team as fifth penalty kick is scored to give the Knights the Division VII section title. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

STOCKTON – Abby Buitrago calmly stepped to the penalty stripe, spotting the ball and her place in Ripon Christian’s storied athletic history.

The newest star in a galaxy dominated by volleyball and basketball players is a fresh-faced soccer player in bright orange cleats.

With a powerful leg swing, Buitrago planted her shot past the reach of Millennium goalie Anekha Birdi, igniting a celebration at least a year in the making.

Ripon Christian annexed its first-ever Sac-Joaquin Section girls soccer championship on Saturday, defeating small-school power Millennium 4-1 in a penalty kick shootout at Lincoln’s Spanos Stadium.

“This has been our goal since the first day,” goalie Bryanna Heida said. “We wrote down our goals and winning sections was one of them.”

The game was tied at 1s after 80 minutes of regulation and two 10-minute overtime periods. Heida gave the Knights the early advantage in the shootout, pushing the first attempt by Millennium wide of the right post.

Though she has been rarely tested, head coach Kevin Tameling had a feeling his junior goalie would impact the outcome of the match. Heida studied her opponents’ body language before each shot, using their hips and eyes as tells.

“Going into the game, she hadn’t had many close games. She was often standing back without much to do,” Tameling said. “I challenged her before the game. I told her she’d play a big role in this game.”

Heida would finish the shootout with two stops, before turning the spotlight over to Buitrago for her fourth-round finisher.

“I had no idea what was going on at the time,” said Buitrago, a club with Manteca FC. “I just knew I had to make it and we had to win. We fought so hard to win this game.”

The freshman striker, who had dominated the early stages of Saturday’s final, put the finishing touches on Ripon Christian’s first-ever section title. She went to the lower left corner against the tall, rangy Birdi – just as teammates Teagan Manus and Courtney Bloemhof had before her.

“I felt on top of the world. This is a big thing for us,” Buitrago said. “Last year, we lost really bad (in the final). This year, it was great for us to come this far and win. It was difficult, but we pushed hard and won as a team.”

The section championship is a fitting cherry on top for the Southern League co-champions. The Knights won 21 of their 24 games, closed with a 12-game winning streak and ran roughshod through its first two playoff opponents to reach the D-VII final for the second consecutive year.

The difference this time around was easy to spot – experience and determination. A year ago, Heida said the Knights were awestruck by the moment and grand stage. Tameling said the 2013 finalists were content with simply sharing the field with Bradshaw Christian, which throttled the Knights 3-0.

On Saturday, Ripon Christian thirsted for more – and flipped the script on the top-seeded Falcons. The Knights dominated the run of play in the opening 20 minutes and seized the early lead on a goal by Cynthia Van Vliet.

Millennium, a two-time section champion, drew even in the 21st minute. Ivy Torres found Victoria Garza to level the match.

From that point on, it appeared the afternoon sun might get the last laugh. As the battle between teams intensified so too did the temperature and rubber fill of the artificial surface.

Key players on each side were hampered by cramps.  Torres, Millennium’s leading scorer, was seen stretching on the sideline late in regulation, favoring her lower leg. One Ripon Christian player had to be carried off the field by coaches.

Still, the Knights finished regulation with a flurry of oh-so-close attacks as they desperately sought the game-winner.

Alex Erdelatz whipped a cross that bounced dangerously through the box at the 10-minute mark. Two minutes later, Van Vliet collided with Birdi as they battled for a ball.

Then, with less than two minutes left, Buitrago broke through a wall of defenders and was taken down at the top of the penalty box, squibbing a shot out of bounds as she fell in a heap.

With its budding star lying prone near the penalty stripe, the Ripon Christian sideline – crowd and bench in unison – cried for a foul.

No matter.

Buitrago would get another opportunity from nearly the exact same spot.

Adri Van Groningen also converted a penalty kick for the Knights during the shootout.

Soccer has long lived in the shadows of Ripon Christian’s marquee girls’ programs – basketball and volleyball. Together, those teams have won 26 Sac-Joaquin Section championships and commanded the attention from the area’s top media outlets.

With Buitrago and nine sophomores, Ripon Christian appears to have the nucleus and talent to tilt the balance of power on the small campus that abuts Highway 99.

At least for three or four more years.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Buitrago said with a sly smile.