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By Keith Peters
When Edgardo Molina isn't playing soccer with his Menlo-Atherton High team, he can be found playing defense for his club squad. There's nothing unusual about that, except his position with the Bears is offense.
"He's a defender on his club team, but we've converted him to a forward," said M-A coach Jacob Pickard. "He's a phenomenal player, a complete kid."
Moving Molina to offense may be one of Pickard's smartest moves during his five seasons as the Bears' coach. Molina has scored 21 goals in 19 matches this season, with two coming Saturday in a 2-0 victory over Palo Alto in a Central Coast Section Division I quarterfinal on a frigid day at Gunn High.
The No. 3-seeded Bears (14-3-2) next will face No. 2 Mountain View (16-1-3) in the semifinals on Tuesday at Piedmont Hills High at 7 p.m. The Spartans advanced after tying No. 10 Alisal, 1-1, and then winning on penalty kicks, 5-3.
That winner will face either No. 1 Bellarmine (16-3-5) or No. 12 Evergreen Valley (17-3-2) in the finals on Saturday at Gilroy High.
Menlo-Atherton hasn't been in the CCS championship match since 1994, when the Bears were coached by Juan Camahort. M-A won that season and hasn't been back in the finals since then.
Menlo-Atherton certainly is well-equipped this season after struggling a year ago.
"Last year was a rebuilding year," Pickard said. "We had a lot of juniors and sophomores. It was a young team, an undisciplined team."
Molina has been on the varsity since his freshman season. He's one of only two players to do that under Pickard. On Saturday, it was easy to see why he has had an impact.
"Edgardo was the difference today," Pickard said. "You take him off the field and it's 0-0. Other than Edgardo, you couldn't discern any difference between the teams."
Molina got the Bears on the board with 23 minutes remaining in the first half when he took a through ball, burst up the right sideline and crossed a shot in front of Paly keeper Austin Shiau and into the left corner of the net.
With nearly the same time remaining in the second half, Molina was left alone in the middle of the field and just outside the penalty box. Teammate Aaron Oro shot a pass to Molina, who finished. Molina also had scoring opportunities three other times, but just missed, as Paly inexplicably had no one marking him.
The Vikings had faced Molina on Dec. 9 in a nonleague match, which the Bears won by the same 2-0 score.
Pickard was a bit surprised that Molina didn't draw more attention.
"When we played Burlingame the second time (after the Bears had won the first meeting), they had three players on him (Molina)," Pickard said.
The Bears, of course, are not a one-man team. Gerry Cruz, Philip Witham, freshman Elvis Abarca, Nicholas Hug, Francisco Sanchez and Oro helped keep the pressure on up front while Will Cabral, Alexi Lopez and Dimas Ayala helped solidify the defense in front of keeper Jonathan Friedman.
"He (Cabral) is one of the best defenders in our league," Pickard said of the PAL Bay Division, in which the Bears earned a co-championship with Burlingame this season. Molina was the division's Forward of the Year.
As good as the Bears performed Saturday, Pickard said there's definitely room for improvement.
"Our practice yesterday (Friday) was really poor," he said. "The day before wasn't good, either. They had five days off (last week) . . . I definitely think there's room for improvement. The good thing is, is that we have a chance to do that."
Pickard said his team will have to play more disciplined if it's going to beat Mountain View, the SCVAL champion. If that happens, it will be just another first for the Bears.
"There's a lot of firsts for the boys this year," Pickard said. "We didn't lose anyone to grades. We won league for the first time since I've been here."
It's also the Bears' first semifinal appearance since 2004 and the first time they've won 14 matches since 2003.
For sixth-seeded Palo Alto (9-4-8), it was just another frustrating finish – similar, perhaps, to the string of five straight ties late in the De Anza Division season that cost the Vikings an automatic berth, a higher seed and a quarterfinal date with someone other than M-A. The Vikings had a number of long free kicks and a handful of corners that missed as the Bears' Friedman came up with some big saves. Senior John Richardson, sophomore Skyler Felt and freshman Josh Totte kept the offensive pressure on along with seniors Mark Raftrey and Austin Smith, but the Vikings just never broke through.
In CCS Division IV play, a strong second quarter and a combined 33 points from twins Reed and Will McConnell propelled top-seeded Sacred Heart Prep to an impressive 72-41 victory over No. 8 Half Moon Bay (19-10) on Saturday at Menlo School.
The Gators (23-2), winners of 19 straight, will face No. 4 Carmel (21-4) in the semifinals on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., also at Menlo. Reed McConnell tossed in 18 points and Will added 15 while fellow senior Colin Terndrup contributed 10. SHP pulled away with a 19-6 advantage in the second quarter for a 39-18 halftime lead.
In another Division IV quarterfinal:
Despite playing in the familiar surroundings of its own gym, Menlo School saw its season come to an end in a 55-46 loss to No. 3-seeded Palma (17-8) on Saturday. The No. 6-seeded Knights (13-13) fell behind early and trailed by 28-19 at the half, but played Palma even in the second half. Jonny Halprin led Menlo with 17 points while Mac Osborne hit three treys and finished with 11 while Kent Lacob added 10. Richard Harris had 10 rebounds but was held to just three points after scoring 24 in the Knights' CCS opener.
In Division V quarterfinal action:
Third-seeded Mid-Peninsula (20-3) eliminated No. 11 Eastside Prep, 55-46, and will play No. 2 and defending division champion and host St. Francis-CCC (16-10) on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
Top-seeded Pinewood (20-5) advanced to the semifinals with a 71-27 drubbing of No. 8 Jewish Community (16-8). The Panthers will play No. 4 Crystal Springs (13-12), a 59-37 winner over No. 5 Priory (11-12), at St. Francis-CCC at 5:30 p.m. It will be a matchup of WBAL teams. Pinewood beat Crystal twice during the regular season.