TEMECULA — Steph Malherbe's prowess with a soccer ball takes her away from her high school team from time to time. Needless to say, Great Oak thrives in her presence.
An Olympic Development Program prospect, Mahlerbe scored two first-half goals, goalie Michelle Craft squashed Chaparral's furious attempt at a comeback in the final period, and the visiting Wolfpack remained in the hunt for a Southwestern League title with a 2-0 victory on a brisk Thursday evening.
"Steph is a finisher," Great Oak coach Alicia Brennan said of her rising sophomore star. "That's been a struggle for us, so she's helped us elevate that aspect of our game. ... We don't always have her, but she's a great player and she rounds out this team. Having her here rounds out the last bit that we need."
On Thursday, she was the difference in a victory that kept the Wolfpack (9-4-2, 3-1-0) a game behind front-running Temecula Valley in the Southwestern League race, scoring twice in a transition offense that caught Chaparral off-guard.
On her first goal, Malherbe accepted a feed from Brie Diaz deep in Pumas' territory on the visiting sideline, beat two defenders, and booted a ball past freshman keeper Makayla Presgrave in the 34th minute.
"There was one person that was directly on me, and I saw a little bit of room, so I cut inside of her," said Malherbe, who has missed six games — four in tournament action — to improve her national-team prospects. "And there was one more person running at me, so I touched past her to the inside of the goal and then it hit it. I was just hoping for the best."
Five minutes later, more of the same from Malherbe opened up a 2-0 lead. First, she fielded an up-field pass along the home sideline and then dribble-weaved through a trio of defenders before slipping a shot into the right-hand corner of the net for a two-goal cushion that Chaparral (11-5-2, 1-2-1) didn't begin to threaten until the second half.
In fact, the Pumas didn't have a shot on goal until Noelle Sanz wheeled on a bouncing ball in the 49th minute on a shot that fell harmlessly into the arms of Craft, who collected all eight of her saves in the second half. Chaparral's best chance to get on the board came and went in the 60th minute when Soleil Hall fed a streaking Corey Strang, only to have her header pop into the air — and into Craft's hands again — instead of on a line at a corner of the net.
"I just think we didn't pressure them enough offensively," Chaparral coach Maury Cauchon said. "We did much better in the second half, I thought, but not in the first half. And we made some defensive mistakes on (Malherbe), obviously. We didn't mark her properly, and she got some goals off."
The Pumas, meanwhile, are struggling to do the same since beginning their Southwestern League slate.
"We have to get the ball into the net," said Cauchon, whose team has two goals in four league games. "We possess well. We prepare it. But we don't finish it."