VENTURA — Deadlocked in a scoreless skirmish, St. Francis High's soccer team was continually saved by Paul Dean, while fourth-seeded Ventura simply couldn't save itself.
Bolstered by a dazzling display in net by Dean, benefited by an own goal that turned the game and further buoyed by the healthy collarbone and accurate right foot of Billy McCreary, the Golden Knights prevailed on Wednesday afternoon, defeating the host Cougars, 2-0, in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division I boys' soccer playoffs.
"It was a mistake, but it was a mistake that I think we caused," said St. Francis Coach Glen Appels of the own goal that Ventura put on the board in the 68th minute that broke a scoreless tie and set up a McCreary score just six minutes later that effectively sealed the victory. "That second one was just as huge. It was a great finish by Billy."
St. Francis (15-9) will now host a quarterfinal showdown on Friday at 3 p.m. against visiting San Clemente, a winner in penalty kicks over Palos Verdes on Wednesday.
In a sequence started by junior midfielder Austin Frank's header into the attacking third, McCreary put his own header into the Ventura box where senior striker Eric Verso, who had plagued the Cougars (19-6-2) all contest long, was pressuring. As the Ventura defender and keeper converged, the defender headed the ball up and inadvertently into the net.
"Eric had put so much pressure on them, they were worried about him," Appels said.
Added McCreary: "Eric was screaming at me to flick the ball. I flicked it, but it went higher than I wanted, but it ended up working out."
Not long after in the 74th minute, McCreary, playing in his very first game back since being sidelined with a broken collarbone, put the game to rest. He took a corner kick from junior midfielder Derek Bell, controlled the ball with his chest and blasted a right-footed shot high into the net.
"I just came out to play as hard as I could," McCreary said. "It felt absolutely great."
Not long after the own goal, Dean made a huge diving stop and would make another on a header that he lost amid a scrum, but quickly gathered. It culminated a day in which he made nine saves, including seven in the pivotal second half.
"Paul was big," said Appels, whose team allowed four goals in a loss to Loyola in its final regular season contest, but has allowed just one in two playoff games, including a shutout of a Ventura squad that won the Channel League and had scored 70 goals on the season. "[The effort Wednesday] was a testament to our defense and Paul."
Behind the backline of seniors Jake LaPorte, Tim Nguyen, Sean Fitzpatrick and freshman Jeffrey Quezada, St. Francis held strong against a Ventura onslaught that was physical and tried its hardest to utilize its height advantage on a multitude of set pieces in front of the St. Francis net.
"They had a lot of big guys," Dean said. "We kinda practiced [against set pieces] over and over again in practice. … I got a lot of reps seeing what it was like."
And it paid off for Dean and the Golden Knights.
St. Francis began the game well enough, getting a fair share of scoring opportunities inside the first 10 minutes until Ventura took a possession advantage for most of the rest of the first half, though opportunities were few and far between in the opening half. However, Ventura set the tempo with its physical style.
"Every time we got something going, there was a foul. It really slowed the game down," Appels said. "We need to finish the free kicks. If they foul us, we need to make them pay."
While McCreary's collarbone had healed, the first half saw Mark Verso leave with a busted nose after being clotheslined by the Ventura keeper. A bloodied Verso remained on the bench for the remainder of the game and Appels said the sophomore forward would need to see a doctor to determine if he could play on Friday.
The Golden Knights came out seemingly revitalized in a second half that went back and forth, up and down the field with Verso and junior midfielder Eric Bocanegra often leading the offensive charge. Ventura methodically took back the run of the game before it all changed in St. Francis' favor rather quickly.
"It seemed like they had some momentum and we came fighting back," McCreary said. "We just pulled it out."