It seems as if all the big soccer games are coming down to penalty kicks nowadays, whether it was the World Cup Final back in December, the MLS Cup Final in November or Thursday’s NorCal Division V Regional playoff semifinals match between Denair High and Gridley High.
Unfortunately for the No. 7 seed Coyotes, they now know the feelings shared by the French National Team and the Philadelphia Union. Over 100 minutes of game time was not enough to break a 2-2 tie, and the fate of both teams relied in the penalties, where No. 3 seed Gridley pulled away by a 4-2 mark.
“To make it this far in the playoffs and to fight for all those minutes in the game and to have it end like that, it’s just tough,” said Denair head coach Antonio Padilla. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s just heartbreaking.”
The heartbreak may have felt a bit stronger after the drastic turn of emotions felt by the Coyotes. In regular time, Denair’s two goals were knocked in by senior striker Angel Sanchez. They were Sanchez’s 51st and 52nd of the 2022-2023 campaign and earned him the title as the program’s single-season scoring king.
“We celebrated that a little bit,” said Padilla. “He has been our leader and he deserved the honor.”
The Coyotes pulled ahead twice, 1-0 and 2-1, before goals by Gridley’s Ricardo Ramos equalized things each time.
As for the penalty kicks, although the ball didn’t roll in favor of the Coyotes, Padilla explained that it was important for his team to go out with no regrets.
“For the penalties, I just told the kids the fundamentals. Be confident and have your mind made up,” he said. “In those situations, you can’t second guess yourself or change your approach at the last second. Have a plan, and stick to that plan, and whatever happens, happens.”
As with any season-ending loss, the emotions within players, coaches, families and fans came out. Though the season ends in disappointment, Padilla believes that his squad has nothing to hang their heads about.
“I just wanted to tell them how proud I was of them,” he said. “Every single player played a role this season, so after the game, I just made sure to say some words to each of them and made sure not to miss a single person. I tried my best to comfort them after the game, but it was tough.”
The 2022-2023 Denair High Coyotes will without a doubt go down as the most dominant team in the program’s 22-year history. On the road to their second consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI title and through their Regional playoffs semifinals appearance, the Coyotes outscored opponents 20-3, including a 5-0 quarterfinal win against No. 2 seed Bakersfield Christian on Tuesday night.
On the season, the Coyotes scored a whopping 118 times, enroute to a 17-11-4 overall record, which could have been even better if not having to forfeit four preseason matches after failing to report grades in time, something that Padilla, a first-year head coach, described as a learning experience.
“This team was a pleasure to coach,” he said. “We’re going to be losing some guys for next season, but to make it this far and to have these experiences, I’m just so excited for next year and excited for the future.”