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Sierra exacts revenge with semifinal win
Michaela Scott, from left, Stephanie Vanni, Hannah Obanni, Jaime Huffman and Sydnee Koscielecki kick off the celebration after teammate Hannah Obanni stuffed West Campus’ final shootout attempt to clinch the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoff semifinal victory Thursday in Sacramento. - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO
SACRAMENTO — Sierra High goalkeeper Moriah Fallon guessed left.

She guessed wrong, but her quick reflexes couldn’t have been more right.

On what ended up being the final attempt of a nerve-wracking shootout in Thursday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoff semifinal, West Campus’ Jena Mamlola skipped the deciding shot directly toward Fallon, who stopped her momentum and maintained enough balance to stuff the attempt with both palms.

The clutch save was the defining moment of Sierra’s 1-1 victory (6-5 on the shootout) that catapults the program to its eighth section championship-game appearance.

“Everyone’s counting on you, it’s really not fair,” Fallon said in jest. “I freaked out after that (save) because the referee blew his whistle and I wasn’t sure what that meant.

“But when I saw my teammates running at me I just stood there kind of stunned.”

Sierra (27-0-1) has been stunned on that same uneven and sloping field before, as West Campus (15-2-2) eliminated the Timberwolves from the last two postseasons.

“To get (to the section finals) we had to play a very tough team at their home,” said Manuel Pires, who won his 301st game as Sierra’s only head coach. “This is a tough place to beat them, and they have an excellent team.”

Senior striker Nicole Vanni’s goal in the 58th minute ultimately sent the game into two 10-minute overtime periods and the shootout.

Hannah Obanni set up the tying goal with a free kick from near midfield, and Kayla Cody deflected it toward Vanni from the top of the penalty box. Vanni controlled it and touched it past West Campus netminder Annicia Jones.

Vanni now has 52 goals, which leads the state, on the season.

The Warriors took the lead three minutes into the second half. Mamola rambled down the left sideline on a breakaway, and the ball squirted past the charging Fallon and toward Melissa Gomez for an uncontested shot.

“We kept saying the third time is going to be the charm,” Vanni said. “Since we last played them last year we had one thing on our mind: To come back, beat this team and take sections.

“We know what it feels like to lose here, and we didn’t want to have that feeling again. Since the first day of conditioning we went out on worked extra hard every day.”

That workmanlike quality served the Timberwolves well during the physical grudge match that totaled 35 fouls. As well as Sierra builds its attacking runs on one end, it also takes pride of clamping down on the other.

Sierra came into the match with 22 shutouts. West Campus had 15 and drew the praise of Pires, who called the Warriors, “The best defensive team we’ve played all year.”

Sierra outshot the Warriors 16-9, but both sides had many missed opportunities. Some of that is attributed to the fantastic display of goalkeeping. Jones finished with six saves for West Campus, while Fallon had four.
In the second minute of the first half, Fallon punched a shot from Gomez over the crossbar to keep it scoreless, and she later dove to stop Mamola’s direct kick on the final shot attempted in the second overtime.

“There’s a reason why she’s one of the best goalies all the way around, and she proved it again,” Pires said. “She did an outstanding job of keeping us in the game. She was on her game.”

In Tuesday’s 5-0 opening round victory over El Dorado, Fallon slapped away a late penalty kick to keep the sheet clean.

The Timberwolves expect to face another stout defense in the section title game Saturday at Lincoln High of Stockton, where Rocklin-based Whitney (13-1-8). Whitney defeated Sierra’s Valley Oak League rival Sonora 2-0 in the other semifinal.

Sierra— ranked second in the country by the National Soccer Coaches of America, sixth by ESPN Rise — will go after its fourth section title Saturday. Sierra’s last finals appearance was in 2006, when Sonora one the first of its three straight championships.

“Nicole is the only starter left from that team, and in this group of seniors there were about four who played a lot of minutes in the section finals the last time around,” Pires said. “They’d like to go back and go out with a win.”