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Hart soccer's big moment

Hart to take on West Torrance in today’s CIF-SS semifinal

Posted: March 3, 2014 10:49 p.m.
Updated: March 3, 2014 10:49 p.m.

Hart High senior soccer players, from left, Destinney Duron, Kelsey Stokes, Sophie Cortes, Laura Sega and Brianna Diaz have helped Hart advance to the CIF-Southern Section Division II semifinals for the first time since 2007.

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The Hart girls soccer team finds itself one win away from its first CIF-Southern Section championship appearance since 1999.

And for a group of six seniors that has dealt with constant change at the top and agonizing letdowns in the face of large expectations, today’s CIF-SS Division II semifinal match against West Torrance at Hart High at 3 p.m. is a signal that the Indians hard work and adversity has finally paid off.

“As a senior, it feels different,” says Sophie Cortes. “It’s the last hurrah and your last chance to prove something to your school, your team and to yourself.”

Along with Cortes, fellow seniors Kelsey Stokes, Brianna Diaz, Destinney Duron, Laura Sega and Georgie Nielsen all stepped on the field for the Indians in 2011 fully expecting to win a Foothill League title under then-head coach Mike Gomez.

The group similarly entered 2012 with high expectations, this time under head coach Justin Lundin.

Both groups fell just short of a championship, instead settling for second place and exiting early in the postseason.

“We’ve been so close before and our senior year it’s finally coming to fruition,” Stokes says.

So when things looked bleak for Hart’s league title chances this season, facing near must-win games against Valencia and Canyon heading into the final week of the season, the group of experienced seniors knew what it would take to flip the script on the disappointments of the past.

“We’ve played seven championship games,” says Cortes of the mind-set heading into the league’s final weeks. “We’ve won every single one and it’s still going.”

Winners of seven straight and undefeated in their last 13 games, the Indians are coming off a road 0-0 (5-4 penalty kicks) victory over the defending Division II runners-up and 2014 No. 1-seed Sunny Hills, and have advanced further than any Foothill League team since Saugus’ 2008-09 championship squad.

On top of being the only Foothill League soccer team still alive, boys or girls, the girls are also the only winter sports team still standing at Hart High School.

And as a result, they expect to see a hefty crowd this afternoon.

“We play really strong on our home field. We’re very confident on this field,” Sega says. “We’ll have a big 12th man out there.”

The Indians will take the field today against the division’s No. 4 seed, West Torrance. A win would mean another step forward for a program that has undergone substantial change in recent years with three head coaches in three seasons, with first-year head coach Guilherme Mitrovich taking over this year.

“It’s been hard,” Diaz says. “We had to show our skill to every new coach and earn their respect. But it’s been positive change.”

And now that they’re on the cusp of a championship appearance, the desire for a title has only intensified.

“I didn’t think it would be that emotional (to lose early in the playoffs), but now that we’ve come this far, we’ve boosted our confidence so much,” Sega says. “We have the skill and determination and collectedness to win.”

Of all the struggles the group of seniors has taken to get to this point, perhaps none have suffered more than Duron and Nielsen.

Duron missed the entirety of her junior season due to injury, but has returned as one of the team’s top weapons.

She features the Foothill League’s most dangerous throw-in, and has a versatility that has allowed Mitrovich to move her all across the field with equally favorable results.

“It made me want to come back this year to push everything and make up for last year,” Duron says. “We’ve come so far and we can win it all.”

Nielsen, on the other hand, will be forced to watch today’s game from the sideline after breaking her fibula and tibia during the Hart Soccer Showcase championship game in December.

“It’s been a really tough road dealing with this injury and at first it was very upsetting to watch my team play instead of me,” Nielsen says. “But it’s gotten better and I’m happy to encourage my teammates and I’m ready to help my team.”

So from the sideline, Nielsen will be part of that 12th man Sega can’t wait to see, out there to support the Indians as they continue their quest toward greatness.

A journey some on the team admitted they didn’t expect to last this long after the disappointing finishes of the past.

“This year has exceeded my expectations by one million,” Cortes says. “I’m in a dream.”

The Indians aren’t planning on waking her up any time soon.

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