Boys soccer preview, 2018-19: Youthful Watsonville trying to reach high bar; Ceiba, M.V.C. cherish new opportunities

Watsonville junior Alexis Valenzuela (10) is part of a young but talented team that is trying to live up to the program’s lofty yearly expectations. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian File Photo

WATSONVILLE — The Watsonville Wildcatz are younger than usual, but the lofty yearly expectations thrusted upon the 11-time Central Coast Section champions haven’t changed.

Neither has the talent.

“With Watsonville’s legacy, it’s got to be a winning season every year,” said Watsonville junior midfielder Julian Garcia. “There’s always going to be pressure, but we can handle it. We know how to handle it.”

The expectations for nearly every team in the Pajaro Valley are very high heading into 2019.

Monte Vista Christian won’t carry the same CCS-title-or-bust expectations like Watsonville, but coach Mitchell Salerno said the fact that the Mustangs entered the winter with the hope — and belief — of competing for a league championship is already a big win for the program, which has not qualified for the postseason since 1987.

“There’s hope around the program,” Salerno said. “That hasn’t been there in a long time.”

Here is a look at the seven local boys soccer teams in the area:

APTOS

The Mariners last season missed out on the CCS playoffs by less than a handful of power points, and have tried to correct that shortcoming by stacking their preseason slate with tough teams that will challenge for their respective league titles.

That plan has produced a few lopsided results, but it has also helped the team band together and address its weaknesses.

A scoreless tie against San Benito, which is expected to compete against the juggernauts of the Pacific Coast Athletic League’s Gabilan division, in the final game of 2018 was a sign of progress.

“I know these boys have what it takes,” said senior midfielder Danny Cantolan. “I know we have the talent, but we have to keep working hard. We’re all working hard. Most of us are seniors, and we all want it.”

Cantolan is one three senior captains for head coach Roberto Zuniga. Midfielders Bryan Palacios and Stefan Jaskulak also hold captain positions for Aptos, which graduated only four players from last year’s 22-man roster.

Leading goal scorers Cristoval Montejano and Cooper Jeffrey are gone following graduation, and Zuniga said his team, which is on the shorter side, will have a more balanced attack this season with his three captains leading the way.

“It’s not about the size, it’s about what you do on the field and how you communicate,” Zuniga said.

The Mariners last winter finished with a 9-8-2 overall record and a 6-5-1 Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League record, which was good enough for fourth place in the league. Defending league champion Soquel is without the services of Jalen Graves and Nate Zeise, whom last season were named SCCAL M.V.P. and Goalkeeper of the Year, respectively, but the Knights are still expected to be the team to beat with senior striker Ryan Jordan, the reigning SCCAL Forward of the Year, still around.

Runner-up Santa Cruz and third-place finisher Scotts Valley will also be in the mix, as will Harbor.

Jaskulak said if the Mariners can take care of the small things — showing up to practice on time, studying film, trusting each other — the ceiling for this year’s team could be very high.

“All that stuff makes a big difference,” Jaskulak said. “How far we go, is up to us.”

CEIBA

The Spartans — in their second year as a varsity program — have wasted little time in establishing themselves as one of the top teams in the PCAL Santa Lucia division, the lower division of the new 33-school super league. They hold a 3-0-1 league record, and played toe-to-toe with league-title favorite Pacific Grove in a 2-2 tie.

The early success might have been a surprise to people outside of the small charter school in Watsonville, but head coach Paulina Gonzalez said she expected her talented bunch to make some waves in their first year.

“They’re competing against schools that not many thought we would,” said Gonzalez, a 2008 Watsonville graduate who starred for the girls’ soccer team. “They want to be seen, and they want to be recognized. They’re going hard, but I’m trying to keep them grounded. We haven’t made it yet.”

Striker Diego Padilla and midfielders Albert Bernardino and Abram Gonzalez are three of eight seniors, and serve as the team’s captains. Padilla is a supreme finisher through traffic, while Bernardino and Gonzalez are solid all-around players whom keep their teammates accountable.

The trio last season helped the Spartans finish runner-up in the Coastal Athletic League with a 6-2-2 record — they were 7-4-2 overall — and they have hopes of leading the program to the CCS playoffs this winter. That won’t be an easy task, as the Spartans would not only need to win the PCAL-Santa Lucia, but also beat the second-place finisher of the PCAL-Cypress — the division above them — in a play-in game to qualify.

“The confidence level right now is high,” Padilla said. “We all believe in ourselves. We believe we can make it into CCS.”

Padilla through six games leads the Monterey Bay in goals with 11, according to stats kept by mbaypreps.com. His goal-scoring brilliance has permeated throughout the team, as four other players have also scored goals this season. Gonzalez has a pair, as does junior David Romo and freshman Roman Acosta.

Bernardino said Padilla will definitely score a bulk of the team’s goals this year, but added that several other players will step into bigger roles as their confidence grows throughout the year.

“I think every player on this team has some great talent,” said Bernardino, who is in his fourth varsity season. “I trust everyone of my players no matter what… It’s a team sport. Every one has an equal chance to help the team win.”

M.V.C.

The Mustangs got a small taste of success during Salerno’s first year as coach, and have a hunger to build upon the foundation set during last season.

Being in the PCAL-Cypress gives them hope they can do just that. Carmel, Greenfield and King City are expected to be near the top of the division — the third toughest in the league — but M.V.C., Pacific Collegiate School and Seaside will also be in the mix when play begins in the first week of January.

“I think any of the teams in our division could be at the top of the table by the time that it’s done,” said Salerno, who is also the school’s Headmaster.

Nine players return from last winter’s team, including senior captains A.J. Garcia and Bob Chavez — the team’s lone seniors. Last year’s Monterey Bay League Pacific division M.V.P. Matt Olson, who had 19 goals and five assists, is not one of them, and the Mustangs have struggled to score without him during a challenging set of preseason contests.

M.V.C., however, seems content with playing to its strength: defense.

Chavez, junior Terrell Brown and sophomore Johnny Brinton lead the backline with their speed and physicality, and sophomore goalkeeper Devin Banks is a big body in front of the net.

“We have a lot of hope…we have a good chance at changing the culture here,” Brinton said. “Just the fact that coach has this hope in us motivates me a lot.”

Brinton, a high-level club soccer player from Gilroy, is arguably the team’s most skilled player overall, and might see time at keeper or forward if the team needs a boost at either spot.

Chavez, too, could move to the attack or midfield when junior defender Trey Tate, a transfer from Sobrato in Morgan Hill, is cleared to play.

Juniors Josh Hollingsworth and Austin Kilinski, and sophomores Andrew Bachman, Jacob Morris, Quoc Hoang, Logan Pluckhan and Nicholas Aguirre also return for youthful M.V.C., which carries nine sophomores overall and four freshmen.

“We’re young, so we’re going to have some growing pains, but we’re trying to not be afraid to make mistakes,” Chavez said. “If we make a mistake, whatever, we just fix it…We talk about that a lot.”

N.M.C.

North Monterey County was the big surprise of last year’s MBL Gabilan division. The Condors finished fourth behind Alisal, Watsonville and San Benito and won 11 games overall, but somehow missed the CCS playoffs for the fifth straight season.

N.M.C. will have to hope it can surprise again this winter in the powerhouse PCAL Gabilan division. Alisal, Watsonville, San Benito and Alvarez carry over from last year’s MBL-Gabilan, while Soledad, a 16-game winner and CCS Division II runner-up last season, joins the heavies of the Monterey Bay in what is arguably the toughest soccer league in the entire section.

Coach Esteban Gonzalez’s Condors will be without Edward Gallardo and Mario Hernandez, whom combined for 30 goals and 12 assists last season under coach Ken Laird. Gallardo and Hernandez were two of 11 seniors on last year’s team.

N.M.C. has nine seniors on its 22-player roster this winter, but only one, Angel Mora, played on last year’s team. Juniors Antonio Diaz, Eduardo Hernandez and Leo Rocha are the only other returning players.

PAJARO VALLEY

Pajaro Valley is winless against league opponents over its last 18 games dating back to the 2016-17 season. That streak will most likely end at some point this winter with the Grizzlies no longer competing against the powers of the MBL-Gabilan.

Yet longtime coach Juan Roman does not believe wins will be any easier to come by in the PCAL-Mission, the second-toughest division in the new league. North Salinas, Salinas, Christopher, Gonzales, Palma, Gilroy and Monterey will all stand in the Grizzlies’ way this winter. North Salinas and Salinas were co-champions of the MBL-Pacific last season. Gonzales won the Mission Trail Athletic League. And Monterey spent last season in the MBL-Gabilan.

“That league is loaded, too,” Roman said. “It’s not an easy league…we’re going to have to work for our wins.”

Roman has a youthful group that features only two returning senior starters: defenders David Garcia and Ricardo Gutierrez. The Grizzlies have eight seniors overall, but also carry five freshmen — three of which start.

Pajaro Valley’s strength lies in its seven-player sophomore class, featuring forward Kevin Rincon, defender Guadalupe Medina and midfielder Brian Martinez. All three have been bright spots for the Grizzlies through a challenging start to the season, which culminated in three blowout losses to Soledad, Santa Cruz and Watsonville. The last defeat, a 4-0 loss to the rival Wildcatz on Dec. 21, served as a wakeup call.

“They’re fed up,” Roman said. “Things got heated after that loss, and people challenged each other. It was nothing bad. It was all positive… I think all of them know something needs to change, and they’re starting to take responsibility. We have 12 league games to turn this around and make CCS.”

ST. FRANCIS

Saying last winter was a tough season for St. Francis would be a massive understatement. The Sharks started the 2017-18 campaign 1-8-1 before forfeiting seven of their final eight games because of low numbers.

Coach Sergio Ambriz returns for his second season, and so, too, do leaders Sean Farley and Cesar Sanchez. All three are hoping for a much different ending this winter, and being a part of the PCAL-Santa Lucia has helped them get off to a respectable start.

St. Francis has already eclipsed last year’s win total, and it also secured its first league victory since 2016 behind Farley’s two goals against Trinity Christian earlier this month.

Setting the program record for league wins in a single season (4) is a realistic mark for the Sharks, who are 2-3 overall and should be able to compete against most of the teams in their division.

WATSONVILLE

Legendary head coach Roland Hedgpeth is back for his 51st season — 49 with Watsonville and two at M.V.C. — and is putting off the talk of retirement until he sees the current young core of players through.

What’s kept him around through the last half century?

The allure of a state championship?

The hope of reaching 700 wins?

“It’s mainly the kids,” said Hedgpeth, who holds a 647-129-99 overall record. “They’re all respectful. Before every game and before after every practice they always say ‘how are you doing coach?’ There might be one or two that don’t, but by the end of the year it’s everybody.”

Defenders Ricardo Alvarado and Noel Vega and midfielder Angel Luis Hernandez are the lone starting seniors on this year’s team, according to Hedgpeth. Andrew Celedon, Juan Carlos Ortiz and Alexandro Zepeda complete Watsonville’s six-man senior class, and play plenty of minutes as super subs.

Midfielders Alexis Valenzuela, Eric Vasquez and Garcia and defender Rodrigo Campos lead a nine-man junior class, while sophomore midfielder Freddy Rocha-Fernandez and sophomore forward Jael Leal complete the 17-man roster.

Watsonville has only one player that stands 6-feet tall, and none that carry a tremendous amount of bulk. But the Wildcatz make up for their slightness of build with their creative passing from the center of the field, and ability to finish when the ball reaches a striker’s feet.

“[We] play on the ground, we play fast, quick,” Garcia said.

Garcia is one of eight players who return from last year’s team, which finished with a 12-5-4 overall record and qualified for the prestigious CCS Open Division but was bounced in the first round by top-seeded Los Gatos in a 1-0 heartbreaker.

This year’s team would like to return to the Open, win it and earn a spot in the California Interscholastic Federation Northern California playoffs.

“We want to win it all,” Alvarado said. “This is why we’re here. This is what we do.”

But, first, Watsonville will have to earn its spot in the section’s top division by winning or placing high in the powerful PCAL-Gabilan. Rival Alisal has edged Watsonville for a league championship in each of the last three seasons, and coach Mark Cisneros’s Trojans figure to a big player in the new star-studded division.

“We’ve got to take it one step at a time, you know?” Valenzuela said. “We won Homestead, now we got to go for league. CCS will be after, but for now we’re focusing on league.”

•••

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Alvarado_WHS_Mug_2018-19

Ricardo Alvarado (Sr.)

School >> Watsonville

Position >> Defender

Why he’ll be great >> Watsonville’s top returning defender has gotten off to a strong start this year

Julian_Garcia_WHS_Mug_2018-19

Julian Garcia (Jr.)

School >> Watsonville

Position >> Midfielder

Why he’ll be great >> A calming presence in the mid of the field for the young Wildcatz

Jael_Leal_WHS_Mug_2018-19

Jael Leal (So.)

School >> Watsonville

Position >> Forward

Why he’ll be great >> Young but explosive forward who can finish with the best of them

Danny_Cantolan_Aptos_Soccer_2018

Danny Cantolan (Sr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Midfielder

Why he’ll be great >> A third-year varsity player who has stepped up as a vocal leader

Bryan_palacios_Aptos_Soccer_2018

Bryan Palacios (Sr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Forward

Why he’ll be great >> Expected to score plenty of goals with the graduation of Cristoval Montejano

Stefan_Jaskulak_Aptos_Soccer_2018_mug

Stefan Jaskulak (Sr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Defender

Why he’ll be great >> The leader of the Mariners’ veteran defense

Albert_Bernardino_Ceiba_soccer_2018

Albert Bernardino (Sr.)

School >> Ceiba College Prep

Position >> Midfielder

Why he’ll be great >> A terrific passer who can control the pace of a game from the middle

Diego_Padilla_Ceiba_soccer_2018

Diego Padilla (Sr.)

School >> Ceiba College Prep

Position >> Forward

Why he’ll be great >> Leads the Monterey Bay in goals (11) heading into the new year

Bob_Chavez_MVC_Mug_2018

Bob Chavez (Sr.)

School >> M.V.C.

Position >> Defender

Why he’ll be great >> A solid defender who can also play other positions

Johnny_Brinton_MVC_Soccer_2018

Johnny Brinton (So.)

School >> M.V.C.

Position >> Sweeper

Why he’ll be great >> A high-level club soccer player who might be the team’s best overall athlete

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