After opening its North Coast Section (NCS) playoff run with a last Saturday, the top-seeded Tam High soccer squad had a dogfight on its hands Wednesday afternoon, as Maria Carrillo High played them to a standstill in regulation in a semifinal battle at home.
But after nearly 87 minutes of gritty, scoreless soccer, the Red-tailed Hawks broke through, scoring a golden goal in sudden-death overtime to advance to the NCS championship game against Santa Rosa's Montgomery High at Marin Catholic at 2:30 p.m.
Like many of Tam's offensive strikes over the past two seasons, the golden goal was incited by star playmaker Julien Melendez. The junior has long been a marked man for opponents’ defensive schemes but overcame some second half-frustration and seized the moment in the first overtime period, taking a pass from Gabriel Cavalcante and busting through multiple defenders before blasting a shot at Puma goalkeeper Erik Nunn. Nunn deflected the shot but junior striker Mohammed Manneh hawked the ball and knocked it in.
“The second half was definitely frustrating because I kept making runs and wasn’t getting many chances,” Melendez said. “But I knew that I just needed that one touch where I could take the ball and get a shot or an assist. When I got it, I knew I had to stay strong all the way to the goal. I took the shot, got a lucky bounce and Mo finished it off.”
Manneh's flick slipped just inside the right post, and a celebration erupted at midfield. Within minutes, the Tam football squad, set to practice on Bruce Grant Field in advance of its own anticipated NCS run, came onto the field and cheered the soccer squad's win.
Melendez said he wasn't surprised Manneh stayed after the deflection.
"Mo has been that player all season," he said. "We’ve had so many shots bounce off the keeper and he’s scored on quite of few of them. He has that urgency where he says, ‘I’m going to get that ball. And he got to this one.”
Tam started the game strong, with Melendez, Cavalcante and Imran Nana teaming up on a number of exchanges that put the Pumas on their heels. A corner kick by Minho Kang led to a dangerous shot by Nana but the Maria Carrillo defense held its ground. It was the first of several sequences in which the ball bounced around tantalizingly close to the Pumas’ goal, to no avail.
“You have to give their defense and goalkeeper a ton of credit,” Tam coach Dustin Nygaard said. “They withstood several challenges where the ball was bouncing around right in front of their goal and they kept us out.”
The Pumas counterattacked and challenged Tam goalkeeper Cameron Robach several times, none more dangerous than James Pierpoint’s blast from the right side that Robach swallowed up.
Tam came out of halftime with another surge, and Melendez’s line drive from the left side struck the left post, leading to another barrage on Nunn.
“I really thought we were going to break through there,” Nygaard said.
Tam continued to work the left side, with Melendez and Cavalcante creating a number of opportunities, along with Ludo Nengo, But regulation ended with a scoreless tie, and both teams entered overtime looking for that elusive goal.
“A lot of players would pull up on that and think the keeper’s got it,” Nygaard said. “But he’s just been that relentless kind of player for us all season. It was fantastic.”
Tam advances to the NCS championship game at Marin Catholic on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. They take on Montgomery, whose coach, Jon Schwan, is Nygaard's closest friend and served as the best man at his wedding.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Nygaard said.