Cate’s regional run derailed by Crossroads

It was an unfamiliar site for anyone who’s watched Cate boys soccer for the last two years — dejected Ram players collapsed on the field after the final whistle, heartbroken over a loss.

The back-to-back CIF-SS Division 7 champions were stunned in the semifinals of the CIF State Regional Division 3 Championships, falling to Santa Monica-Crossroads 4-3 on Wednesday at San Marcos High’s Warkentin Stadium.

Top-seeded Cate gave up a goal in the first minute and fell behind 4-1 early in the second half before making a furious comeback that ultimately fell short. Senior Avery Schwartz scored twice off Joshua Yaro assists, but the Rams couldn’t come up with the magic to score an equalizer and suffered only their second loss in two years.

“They attacked right away,” Cate coach Dave Mochel said of Crossroads. “They did a great job of containing us in the middle. I don’t want to take anything away from them, they did a nice job, and they are obviously well coached.”

Nate Merchant and Will Gansa each scored two goals for fifth-seeded Crossroads, which was the CIF-SS Division 6 runner-up. Three of the goals came off set pieces.

“Everyone would like to have those moments back, but to their credit, they finished,” said Mochel.

Cate, playing in the regionals for the first time, finishes the season with a 20-2-1 record. Crossroads (17-7-2) advances to Friday’s regional championship match against No. 2 seed McFarland at Warren High in Downey.

While they scored three goals, the high-powered Cate offense struggled to find a rhythm most of the afternoon against a well-organized Crossroads defense. The Roadrunners bottled up Cate’s attack with double- and triple-team coverage of playmaking midfielders Ema Boateng and Jeffrey Acheampong.

“Our whole game plan was to shut down No. 10 (Boateng) and No. 1 (Acheampong) in the midfield, so we tried to stay as compact as possible and just not let them beat us,” said Crossroads coach Federico Bianchi. “They are unbelievable players and we just did the best we could to limit their opportunities.”

When the Rams broke through, they were often stood up by a solid Crossroads back line — led by athletic center back Nate Merchant — or denied by goalkeeper Dylan Ochoa.

“After the first goal, they decided they were going to block us in the midfield,” Boateng said. “I’m sure they’d seen our games on tape. They knew we like to play through the midfield and try to slip balls in. They gave the ball to their defenders the whole time and clogged up the midfield. We couldn’t find our strikers.”

Merchant played huge for Crossroads. Besides his strong defensive play, he scored two goals. He was left open in the box on a crossing ball and hammered a shot through the hands of Cate goalkeeper Blake Wands for a 3-1 lead in the 38th minute. He made it a 4-1 game in the 48th minute, scoring off a free kick from Nick Santhiago.

“He is athlete,” Bianchi said. “He acutally plays forward for his club team, but we put him in the back because he’s such an athlete. But, as you can see, he can put the ball in the net.”

Faced with a huge deficit, Cate pushed Yaro into the attack. The move paid off, as the skilled centerback passed over the top of the defense and found Schwartz, who beat Ochoa to make 4-2 in the 53rd minute.

Cate also moved Boateng to the left wing, giving him more space to take the ball into the attacking third of the field. He broke free in the 68th minute and crossed the ball into the box, but Jordan Fier of Crossroads was there to intercept it. A few seconds later, Yaro broke down the left flank and crossed the ball to a sliding Schwartz, who knocked it in.

“We were probably slow to pull Ema out of the middle,” Mochel admitted. “It took us a half to stop playing the ball up the middle. That’s where their strength was.”

The Rams pushed hard to score the tying goal but they couldn’t come up with the finishing touch.

Crossroads shocked the Rams early, as Gansa gave the Roadrunners a 1-0 lead in the first minute.

Boateng tied it up in the 12th minute off a corner kick. Yaro knocked Acheampong’s corner kick back to Boateng, who beat the goalkeeper with a low shot.

Unfortunately for Cate, Crossroads put up a roadblock for the UCSB commit the rest of the game.

“They fought real well and did real well defending their goal,” Boateng said of Crossroads.”They forced us to dribble and that’s not how we really wanted to play.”

Said Schwartz: “They played their game plan well and we just couldn’t do the things that we’ve done all year.”