San Clemente High School's reputation as a girls' soccer powerhouse took a beating of sorts Saturday night, but Tritons coach Stacey Finnerty certainly didn't mind.
“Give him a big kiss for me,” she texted as a few reporters prepared to greet giddy Mike Pronier after his boys' team added to the school's haul of soccer trophies with a victory over Buchanan, from Clovis, in the Southern California Regional Division I final.
This kind of success is expected from Finnerty's girls, who have won seven CIF Southern Section championships, plus the 2008 regional title -- with a victory over Buchanan -- and fell just short this year, losing in the section Division 1 title game and the regional semifinals.
The boys are tasting it for the first time.
“I'm speechless,” Pronier said after an impressive 4-1 triumph at Warren High School in Downey over a team that hadn't conceded a playoff goal. “It's, like, when we started, we knew we had a good team. We went through some ups and downs, and you can do all the coaching in the world, but it wasn't until they got together at the end of our league season, dyed their hair and did mohawks that we really turned the corner on the season.
“I don't know what that means, but they came together and got better and better, and to finish in this style, with a great offensive performance, is indicative of the team they are.”
Star forward Steve Palacios, sporting a brick-red mohawk, was the catalyst, scoring one goal, sending in a cross for another and crashing shots off the crossbar and left post in an inspired performance despite playing with a slightly separated left shoulder.
“He kept bringing it with the shoulder,” Pronier said. “Some people may not have played [with the injury], but we've gone back and forth over the years, because I knew he had that in him, and sometimes he brought it and sometimes he didn't, but he did nothing but bring it every game in the playoffs. Once we got to the playoffs, he brought his best every day, and I'm proud of it.”
Palacios, who's headed to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, noted the unity that spurred the Tritons (20-5-5) to five one-goal victories en route to their first Southern Section boys' soccer title, then three more wins -- by an 8-1 margin -- in the regional playoffs.
“As ridiculous as we look,” Palacios said, “it's all about team bonding, doing something together. If we look stupid, we look stupid together. … And we win together.”
Actually, the look was rather smart. Palacios said he saw Kevin Gould's mohawk at the far post before sending in a cross he teammate headed home in the 31st minute, for the Tritons' first goal.
Fabian Caudillo's blast to the upper-right corner doubled the advantage three minutes into the second half, and Palacios restored a two-goal lead with a curling shot toward the upper-left corner in the 64th.
Gage Zerboni, who has several sisters (including pro McCall Zerboni, a former UCLA and L.A. Sol midfielder) who starred for Finnerty's teams, wrapped the romp with a rebound into the goal's ceiling with nine minutes to go. Solid defense, especially with Dylan Digiacomo in goal, did the rest.
“This is the prettiest we've ever played,” Pronier said. “This is a talented team. When it's good, it's incredible. The best soccer I've seen at San Clemente.”
Palacios credited the onslaught on clips and quotes about Buchanan that Pronier affixed to his players' lockers.
“I come in the locker room, and there's papers up on the lockers saying [Buchanan] can't be scored on,” Palacios said, “and I find that as a challenge, that, wow, these guys are good. If I can beat them, hopefully, that means I'm the best. I try to be the best.”
San Clemente, long the best in the prep girls game, now has a boys team to match.
“When I first started, it was two years up and two years down, and the consistency we've had over the last seven years has just been building ...,” Pronier said. “The expectations have been going up and up, and now they've set the bar up here, and I don't know how we're gonna ever get back here again, but it's incredible.”
Finnerty, via text, agreed.
“I could not be happier for Mike and the boys,” she wrote. “They worked hard and played together so well. It's a great thing for the city and high school and both soccer programs at SCHS. Mike is a class act and deserves it.”