Girls soccer blasts MA defense to claim NCS title

Branson forward Riley Pearson and Marin Academy’s Chloe Swindle eye the ball during the NCS final game at Branson, Feb. 24, 2023. Branson defeated MA 3-1 after a strong first half. (Courtesy Robert Duran)

By Shun Graves

Marin Academy’s defenders could only take umbrage Friday when Cat Howell’s early shot sailed over their heads in the 6-yard box.

“She caught it so clean on the half volley off the underside of the bar,” Branson coach Tyler Gottschalk said. “You weren’t saving it.”

The freshman forward’s 13th-minute kick flew just under the crossbar into the net, jumpstarting the Bulls’ push at the North Coast Section Division III final. Her goal launched Branson to defeat fourth-seeded Marin Academy 3-1 on the Bulls’ home turf.

“The ball was bouncing around,” Howell said. “I was just really lucky to get it off. And MA being such a good team, I feel like it really helped our team gain confidence.”

That confidence grew as holes appeared in Marin Academy’s defense. Even when Howell made her shot, Marin Academy could do little but watch.

“I served the ball into the box, and those are always 50-50,” center back Caitlin Capitolo said. “But for her to get on the end of it, I knew right away that if she hit that on frame, it was going in.”

Four minutes later, those defensive mishaps cost Marin Academy another goal. Its left back didn’t see Branson striker Charlotte Johnson cornering the loose ball. And with the goalkeeper nowhere near her trajectory, Johnson punched the ball right past the goalpost.

“They didn’t have good communication between the back line and goalie,” she said. “I think the goalie was just not where she was supposed to be.”

I was just really lucky to get it off.

— Cat Howell

With Branson already two goals ahead early in the first half, Marin Academy scrambled for some scoring chances. The team’s only successful opportunity arrived during some jostling in the 6-yard box. Danica Blix netted the 26th-minute goal as Branson goalkeeper Patricia DePalma went out of frame after a corner kick.

Yet Marin Academy couldn’t tally an equalizer before Branson striker Ally Hsieh nailed a penalty kick in the 37th minute. Her shot curved into the corner past the Marin Academy goalkeeper’s reach. The Bulls had netted three goals by halftime, and Marin Academy hit a point of no return.

“We went into the second half, and Patricia was like, ‘The next goal is the game decider, so we want to make sure that we get that one, just to give them no chance,’” right back Birdie Dillon said.

Branson ultimately didn’t need another goal. The Bulls’ San Rafael foe kept DePalma a little busy during the second half, but being outnumbered in the 18-yard box rarely does wonders. Marin Academy settled for a second-place NCS finish after a feckless late effort.

The Bulls tallied another title after defeating Redwood in overtime on Feb. 11 for the MCAL championship. This time, in place of a late-hour push, they just needed to keep Marin Academy at bay for the last 40 minutes.

“Ally did her job,” Capitolo said. “She crushed their dreams once and for all. And then we just knew we had to hold off on the second half, which is what we did.”

Branson advances to the NorCal girls soccer championships scheduled for next week. Officials will release seeding and brackets this weekend.

“I’m really excited to keep it going,” Dillon said. “We’ll see what comes of it.”