The past few weeks have been pretty spectacular for Dani Mendoza on the soccer pitch, and the Hanford Falcons have loved every minute of it.
The junior midfielder scored two goals in the Falcons’ regional second-round victory over Central Valley. She followed that up with the winning penalty shootout kick against Chiawana in the regional championship game, which advanced Hanford (18-3) to state for the first time since 2010.
Mendoza then had an assist in a 3-1 victory over Kennedy Catholic — Hanford’s first state playoff win since 2003 — and scored on a free kick for the only goal in a 1-0 win over Kentridge last week to move her team into the final weekend of state.
Hanford will face West Valley of Yakima in the Class 4A state semifinals at 8 p.m. Friday at Sparks Stadium in Puyallup. West Valley beat Hanford 3-2 on Sept. 2 in the season opener for both teams.
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Playing for a team perennially built on defense and possession, Mendoza said it has been nice to finally be on the winning end of close contests.
“I remember my freshman year, it felt like every other game we were going into PK shootouts and we were always looking for someone to step up and take it, and take the game,” Mendoza said. “I guess being in those situations, under pressure all the time, makes you want to practice more and more and more so you can help your team out when you get the opportunity.”
As the team’s primary set-piece kicker, Mendoza has become a dangerous weapon for Hanford in the postseason, whether by scoring directly or having her long passes find open Falcons in the penalty box.
Coach Kaylie Winston said having a player who can convert free and corner kicks into goals can be the make-or-break factor for a team, especially in the state playoffs.
“I was telling them just the other day that the difference between a good team and a great team is that great teams can finish on set pieces when it’s needed,” Winston said. “Goals are going to become fewer and farther between as we go forward, so if Dani can just keep hitting those set pieces, it helps us out hugely.”
While Mendoza’s offensive contributions have picked up since the start of the playoffs, Winston said she has given the Falcons chances to score all year in spite of her regular-season totals (five goals and three assists).
“I think she was hitting great shots all season long, but lately they’ve just been falling,” Winston said. “She’s been hitting great set pieces and smashing the ball.”
Mendoza also has played a role in Hanford’s defense, which is as good as any in the state heading into championship weekend. The Falcons have allowed just six goals on their current 15-game winning streak, and they have won all but one of their five postseason matches either in a shootout or by a one-goal margin in regulation.
Mendoza said Hanford’s success — especially in such close games — is a result of the whole team stepping up its play in the biggest moments.
That, and having Mid-Columbia Conference player of the year Kelsee Winston defending the net.
“Obviously Kelsee, she’s just our rock,” Mendoza said. “She’s always been there, and she’s saved us so many times. She’s just an awesome player. And everyone else contributes on the team. There’s no one star player. It’s just all of us together.”
Whether she was scoring the Falcons’ biggest goals or not, Mendoza said she’s just happy to be on one of the four teams remaining in the Class 4A state playoffs.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s everything this team has ever wanted, all we’ve ever worked for. It’s awesome that it’s finally coming true.”
The Falcons haven’t played in a state final since 1990. They won their lone state title the year before.