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By Rod Thornburg / Special to The Californian
BY ZACH EWING Californian staff writer email@example.com
A soccer coach will never tell you an early goal is a bad thing, but for a few minutes Tuesday night, Max Bluemel wasn't so sure.
Bluemel's Frontier girls team took a lead early in its crucial Southwest Yosemite League match against Liberty and then held on for 70 long minutes to notch a 1-0 victory that vaults the Titans to the top of the SWYL standings with one game to play.
"It can be very, very difficult to hold a one-goal lead for an extended period of time," Bluemel said. "It was one of the most nerve-racking days of my life, because we realized how much we've put into being successful."
The net result was the six-year-old program's first victory over Liberty (13-4-2, 6-2-1 SWYL), a milestone that came on senior night and gives Frontier (19-6, 7-2) control of its own destiny in the league race, which comes to an end Thursday when the Titans play at Bakersfield.
"It means the world to me," senior defender Katie Cornford said. "It's our first time to ever beat Liberty, and to do it on senior night just makes it more magical."
Frontier struck in the ninth minute when freshman McKenna Darling slotted a goal past Liberty goalkeeper Kalie Clifton. It was Darling's team-leading 14th goal of the season.
"She's a superstar freshman," Bluemel said. "During our (preseason) tryouts, she wasn't really a standout, so when she scored her first goal or two, it was like, 'Oh, that's a pleasant surprise.' And now she's become our go-to player.
"She feels no pressure at all. She's very cool on the field in the attack."
After the Titans took the lead, their defense didn't give Liberty a chance to get back in it, a role reversal from the teams' first meeting, when an early Patriots goal stood up.
"We're lucky to have leaders like (junior sweeper) Lauren O'Connell and Katie Cornford back there," Bluemel said. "The girls have risen to every challenge we've been thrown."
Liberty managed only two shots on goal.
"Having a lead puts pressure on you, but you have to be able to play well," Cornford said. "We just focus on clears and tight marking."
All is not lost for Liberty, which plays at home against Stockdale (6-2-1 SWYL) in its regular-season finale Thursday. Frontier wins the league with a victory at BHS, or if the Stockdale-Liberty game ends in a tie. If Frontier loses, any Stockdale-Liberty winner would be league champion; if the Titans tie, any Stockdale-Liberty winner would split the title with Frontier.
These young Titans -- only three key players are seniors and four more juniors -- aren't acutely aware of any of those scenarios. They just know one more win will both win the league and likely garner the top seed in the Central Section Division II playoffs, which will be seeded Saturday.
"Trust me, we won't be overlooking BHS," Cornford said. "We have a great mix of experience and young enthusiasm. The older ones have the ability to lead, and the younger ones are following the lead of the older ones. It's working out well."