Mater Dei's Alexandria Bruno and Lauren Markwith celebrate after winning the CIF-SS Division 1 championship on Saturday.

Mater Dei's nerves tested, but it takes Division 1 title


CORONA - When the decisive twist of an unlikely thriller finally emerged, Mater Dei goalie Madison Puliafico slowly rose to her feet and sprinted with her arms wide open to her teammates charging from midfield.

The Monarchs’ girls soccer team could finally hold on tight Saturday afternoon and know they were champions.

Puliafico blocked Laguna Hills’ final two shots in penalty kicks to help the Monarchs take the shootout, 3-2, to capture the CIF-SS Division 1 title at Corona High.

Puliafico’s final save against the fifth and final shooter solved what 80 minutes of regulation and two 10-minute periods of overtime couldn’t.

The junior dove to her left to block a shot by Rafaella Bucur, her club teammate who helped force a 1-1 deadlock in regulation with a late goal.

“It was amazing,” said Puliafico, who also made two saves in a shootout victory in the second round against third-seeded Harvard-Westlake of Studio City.

“It’s nerve-racking (in penalty kicks). … I’m so proud of this team. Everyone kept their head up. All the way to the end whistle, everyone was working their hardest.”

Mater Dei (15-4-7) and Laguna Hills (20-2-2) didn’t know any other way in the playoffs. Both were unseeded. The Monarchs captured their first CIF title since 2007, but they were unranked in the final Division 1 poll.

Laguna Hills reached its first final one season after winning three matches.

“It’s fun to see a Division 1 year with a few surprises,” Mater Dei coach Matty West said. “One of the things we’ve been this season is resilient. Again, we got pushed. We got challenged. We excelled.”

Mater Dei scored on its first three attempts in penalty shots. Olivia Ware, Lauren Markwith and Margaret Schmidt each scored as the Monarchs opened a quick 3-1 lead. Laguna Hills drew within 3-2 after the third round with strikes by Michelle Caballero and Rebecca Chavez.

Laguna Hills goalie Jocelyne Vera made a save in the fourth round, but the Hawks had a shot hit off the crossbar in the second round, creating a chance for Puliafico in the final two rounds.

"It's exhilarating," West said. "I'm so proud of how courageous she (Puliafico) was. She really rose up to the occasion."

Bucur netted her third goal of the season in the 71st minute as she scored on a free kick from near the touchline, about 30 yards from the goal.

Mater Dei’s Briana Meyer became the first player to score against Laguna Hills in the playoffs as she scored her seventh from about 20 yards in the 51st minute on a low shot from the middle of the field.

“We knew it was going to be a battle,” Laguna Hills coach Kevin Macare said. “We had a fantastic year. We're proud of everything we've done."

Mater Dei lost starting defender Jessica Harloe to a head injury in the 60th minute but the junior said afterward that she was OK.

Markwith almost scored about 15 minutes into the match but Vera made a diving save in one of the highlight plays of the first half. The Monarchs held the possession advantage while the Hawks looked to send long passes to their forwards.

In the 48th minute, Bucur hit the crossbar on another free kick from near the touchline, about 30 yards from goal.

Mater Dei again held the possession advantage in the second half until the Hawks' attack came alive late.

"I knew we had it in us to come back," Macare said. "I thought Mater Dei played fantastic. ... They put pressure on us, didn't allow us as much possession as we normally like."

Both teams had scoring chances in the golden-goal periods. In shootouts, Puliafico said she anticipated that Bucur -- her club teammate on West Coast -- was going to shoot to her left based on how much she looked the other way before her low kick. "I could tell she was going to go that way," Puliafico said. "I couldn't be happier."

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