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Just moments after the opening whistle, Long Beach Poly head coach Anthony Perez turned and made a confident proclamation: “We’re breaking the curse tonight.”
Less than two hours later, his Jackrabbits were bouncing around in celebration on their home pitch, having secured an elusive–and important–home win over their rivals from Wilson, 3-0.
Perez is in his sixth season as head coach of the Jackrabbits, and during his tenure the home team has not fared well in this rivalry. The home team has emerged victorious just once in those 10 meetings (1-8-1), with eight of those matches finishing within a one-goal margin.
But on a chilly Thursday night on Burcham Field, the Jackrabbits bucked the trend and closed the game with a second-half flurry, scoring three times in the final 15 minutes to earn a big win early in the Moore League season.
“They have a very high technical ability,” Perez said of his team. “As you can tell, as we started to play, it showed a little bit more. I still think we could have been more free flowing, but nonetheless we did the job, and I think that’s the key this year, our technical ability from player to player is higher.”
There was limited action over a scoreless first half as the teams felt their way into the match. The Jackrabbits had much more possession, and outshot the Bruins 6-1 in the first 40 minutes thanks to a late barrage from junior Aaya McLyn, who put three shots on frame in the final five minutes of the half.
As the game wore on without many threats on goal, it appeared things could be headed for a scoreless draw. But on the only corner kick of the second half, Poly was able to break the seal and begin their scoring outburst.
Senior captain Annette Guzman sent in the corner kick, which bounced around dangerously inside the Wilson penalty area. With the Bruins desperate to relieve the pressure on their goal, a clearance attempt was thwarted by Poly junior Leah Salas, who was able to send in the go-ahead goal in the 67th minute.
“I was just waiting back, waiting for (the ball) to get to me, and it was just going around everywhere,” Salas explained. “Then I saw the opportunity. I just kicked it hoping it would go in and then it did.”
Just two minutes later, the lead doubled off another set piece for the Jackrabbits. After a free kick into the box deflected off the Wilson keeper, junior Andra Greer was the first to react to the loose ball, smashing it home with her left foot to double the Jackrabbit lead and continue their second-half surge.
“Everybody came out and played as a team in the second half,” Greer said. “We got a good motivational talk by (Coach Perez) and we just came out and played our game. We were connecting more and then we found our opportunities and took them.”
In the final minutes, it was junior Leila Holland who added the exclamation point, giving Poly their largest margin of victory over Wilson in at least 15 years. After a nice run from freshman Rosa Mallach, the ball was played across the Bruins box to Holland, who buried a solid strike into the back of the net.
“I really think this was all about our work ethic,” Holland said. “We knew this was gonna be a really hard game and really physical. So we knew if we just put our heads down and played our game it would come out like we wanted to, and it did.”
On the flip side, it was a tough early result for the Bruins. Head coach Brian Irvin hopes to get more players back from injury soon, but acknowledged that his team needs to be better at defending set pieces.
“First, credit to Poly they had a good game. I think they battled a little bit harder than us and they wanted it a little bit more than us,” he said. “We didn’t have all our pieces, and I was trying to be more defensive minded with things and kind of sit back and counter. It worked in the first half, and then it just got away from us there in the second half.”
According to Perez, Poly was happy to have possession and eventually find their chances. Once the Jackrabbits broke through, he was pleased with their continued aggressiveness in putting the game away.
“When you go up you start playing a little more defensive, and I just don’t like doing that,” said Perez. “I like to keep going. And I think I finally got the group where once they get that, it’s like they taste blood in the water. They get more excited versus wanting to play defensively, they want to go more. Once you get one, you keep that pressure on and we can beat anybody if we can do that.”
The Jackrabbits will have a huge road test next Thursday, visiting defending Moore League champions Millikan at 6:30 p.m. Perez hopes his team will feed off the energy of their shutout win, and that it will set the tone for the season ahead.