The Millikan Rams opened the CIF-SS Division 1 girls’ soccer playoffs on an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in Long Beach, hosting the El Dorado Hawks. The Rams dominated the second half on their way to a 2-0 victory, earning their second victory over the Hawks this season.
After things were scoreless at halftime, the Rams scored a pair of second half goals to secure the win. Senior Danielle Paulson scored the eventual game-winner in the 46th minute and junior Sierra Sythe tacked on an impressive insurance goal in the 72nd minute.
Neither team had a clear sight of goal until the final few minutes of the opening half. El Dorado’s Alexa Randall nearly headed a shot in off a Hawks corner kick, but Millikan goalie Alicia Calderon was able to make a leaping fingertip save before her defenders cleared their lines. Moments later, Randall nearly scored again on a dangerous cross into the box, but again Calderon was there with quick reflexes to keep the game scoreless.
Millikan head coach Tino Nuñez challenged his defense to play with more intensity in the second half, while also making a tactical shift with how the offense was trying to break down the Hawks.
In the opening 40 minutes, Millikan’s offense was often reliant on playing long calls over the top of the El Dorado defense, but didn’t generate many looks at goal. With a greater emphasis on connecting passes and gradually building their attacks in the second half, the Rams not only dominated possession in the second half, they also got many more quality looks.
“It was just a matter of settling down and playing our game,” said Nuñez. “I think we were trying to rush or force that pass early on. We were flying, but we weren’t in position. So it gave (El Dorado) a couple counters where they almost caught us. And you saw the second half was a completely different game.”
Millikan outshot El Dorado 16-6 for the game, with a 10-2 edge in shots after halftime. The Rams were increasingly dominant as that second half went on, which Sythe credited to her team’s fitness and depth.
“We have a really deep bench, and you saw Tino was subbing a lot,” Sythe explained, “But also, we’ve been training, training, training and everyone’s been holding themselves to a high standard. I know we’ve been working on and off the field and preparing our bodies for this game. So I definitely do think that it was a collective effort of taking care of ourselves and that’s what allowed us to be fresher.”
Paulson opened the scoring less than six minutes after halftime as she was on the end of a well-designed set piece. After Emma Arkus won a free kick for Millikan in El Dorado territory, Hannah Davy served up a perfect ball to the back post where Paulson came flying in with a header to give Millikan the lead.
“We’ve been practicing a lot set pieces, because we know we’ve struggled in the run of play,” Paulson explained. “Right at the corner of the six-yard box, that’s where it’s either (Natalie Paulson) or I make that run and that’s where Hannah has been putting them. I finally just got good contact on it … I think just getting a goal allowed us to settle down and play our soccer and get more chances.”
More chances did follow, and over the final 15 minutes Sythe was growing in confidence and effectiveness. Finally she would connect for a game-sealing goal with about eight minutes left to play. She dribbled through the heart of the El Dorado defense before butting back to her left and placing her shot low and inside the near post.
Sythe wasn’t quite as sharp in the first half, but settled in as the game went on and made sure to put the game away once Millikan got the upper hand.
“Coming out, there’s all these factors: there’s the heat, the fact that we played them before, so there’s all these mixed feelings. I just wanted to go out and really make an impact, and I think I was trying to overcompensate a little bit. But in the second half, once Dan was able to get that goal, it settled down a lot.”
Millikan advances to the second round where they will visit Los Alamitos on Wednesday. The Griffins were 3-1 winners over Saugus in their first-round match.