Girls soccer preview, 2018-19: Young local teams head into break atop standings, look to stay there

Watsonville freshman Najeli Jimenez (18) has been a spark plug for the Wildcatz during their early season success in PCAL-Mission action. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian File Photos

Graduation stripped several local programs of top-level talent, but the well has not run dry in the Pajaro Valley.

On the contrary, most of the girls’ soccer teams in the area have replenished their rosters with young, eye-opening playmakers.

At Aptos, freshmen Jazmin Castaneda and Rowan Bower have helped the Mariners get off to an undefeated start. Freshman Najeli Jimenez and sophomore Brianna Guerrero are powering a resurgence at Watsonville. And North Monterey County sophomores Maria Ramirez, Gina Huerta and Melanie Aquino have been goal-scoring machines for the undefeated Condors.

Those seven are only the tip of the iceberg.

“The talent around the area this year is good once again,” said longtime Watsonville coach Gladys Mondragon. “It’s getting better every year.”

Here’s a look at the seven local girls soccer teams in the area:

APTOS

Two-time Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League M.V.P. Monserrat Hernandez Marquez is now at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Paige Dueck, the SCCAL Midfielder of the Year, and Grace Rothman, the SCCAL Defender of the Year, are gone, too.

Longtime coach Jessica Perkin, who led the Mariners to an SCCAL title in each of the last five seasons, is no longer a part of the program either.

Much has changed at Aptos, but the expectations have stayed the same.

“We still expect to compete for league and win it,” said Aptos senior midfielder Olivia Meier, who will play NCAA Division I soccer at Binghamton next fall. “We lost a lot but we’ve gained some great players…there’s nothing to be afraid about.”

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Aptos senior midfielder Olivia Meier (15) leads a strong group of Mariners who will try to win the SCCAL for the sixth consecutive season this winter. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian

Meier, an All-SCCAL First Team selection as a freshman and junior, leads a small but strong crop of six seniors, which includes Haley Veldhuis, Miranda Fernandez, Jasmine Taylor, captain Bella McDaniel and third-year starting keeper Caroline Miller.

The leaders of that group have helped bring along an impressive six-player freshmen class, featuring Malia Kessler, Sofia Rosa, Ava Hymes, Julianne Houser, Bower and Castaneda.

“It’s super nice to have a mix of new people and upperclassmen,” said Miller, the team’s other captain. “They’re making their own mark. They’re all ready to learn, and we have a lot to learn from them, too.”

Miller, Meier and McDaniel have also helped take some of the pressure off of new coach Jordyn Ryfiak, who is a little more than year removed from her final collegiate game at Fresno Pacific University.

“Our team has been really great at including the freshmen, making them feel like they’re a part of the team,” said Ryfiak, a Michigan native who also played at D-I Valparaiso and served as an assistant coach at UC Santa Cruz this fall. “It’s been different for me, to now be in charge of an entire program instead of just one specific team. That was a little tough at first, but everyone has been super helpful with anything that I needed. The girls have been amazing, too.”

Meier finished with five goals and five assists last winter, but will be asked to do more with Hernandez Marquez and Dueck off in college. Sophomore forward Gisselle Vasquez, who had 11 goals last season, will also have to step into a much bigger role this winter, as will junior Brynn Mitchell, who has excelled in the midfield after spending the last two seasons as a defender.

Taylor, Bower and Houser step into the starting lineup of a backline that returns just one: sophomore Chantal Aguirre.

“We’re definitely a very young team and we’re going to have to get used to each other, but we’re already making a lot of progress,” Mitchell said. “I can already tell the season is going to be good.”

The Mariners’ results through the preseason have said as much. Aptos has yet to lose despite playing some of the best the region has to offer. Ties against state powers St. Francis-Mountain View and Los Gatos, and wins over Presentation and Sobrato have the Mariners ranked in the top 100 teams in the California and top 200 in the nation, according to MaxPreps.com.

CEIBA

Ceiba College Prep has been one of the surprises of the early season. Coach Donna LeFever has the Spartans near the top of the Pacific Coast Athletic League’s Santa Lucia division through four games, scoring wins over Anzar, Oakwood and Marina.

Gonzales, which is undefeated through four PCAL-SL games, looks like the cream of the crop of the league’s lower division, but Ceiba will try to give it a run for its money when league action picks back up in the new year.

Freshman Nellie Rubio-Pintor (7 goals) and senior Alexia Carrisales (4) have combined to score all but one of the Spartans’ 12 goals this winter, the program’s first in a league sanctioned by the Central Coast Section.

M.V.C.

Monte Vista Christian lost the services of one of the top goalkeepers in Santa Cruz County — Syerra Montes — following graduation, but coach Morgan Miller does return 11 players, including all-league first team selections Kailey Morrell (senior) and Sophia Bessa (junior).

Morrell is one of just two seniors on the team — keeper Polina Oglesby being the other — but, like other teams in the Pajaro Valley, the Mustangs were blessed with talented freshmen. Forward Jana Komposch and goalkeeper Madison Pullen have seen plenty of playing time during the team’s opening stretch.

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Monte Vista Christian junior Aryanna Sicoli (8) is one of 11 returning players for coach Morgan Miller. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian

M.V.C., a third-place finisher in the defunct Monterey Bay League Pacific division last winter, will be competing in the league’s third toughest division, the PCAL-Cypress. Seaside, Pacific Grove, Soledad, Monterey, Pajaro Valley and St. Francis will all be competing for the league title when play continues in early January.

The Mustangs have not won a league title since the 2014-15 season.

N.M.C.

North Monterey County has not won a league championship since the 2004-05 season, and never competed in the MBL’s Gabilan division.

That did not seem to matter when the members of the PCAL determined the structure of the league’s four divisions, as the Condors were placed into the Gabilan with local powers Salinas, Alisal, San Benito, Christopher and Gilroy.

So far, N.M.C. seems to be right where it belongs, as coach Eric Lundquist’s Condors are 5-0 heading into the holidays.

N.M.C. has just two seniors on the team — Samantha Mount and Kimberly Marquez — but its young players have played like seasoned veterans. Ramirez (6 goals, 2 assists), Huerta (3 goals) and Aquino (2 goals, 4 assists) have all gotten off to strong offensive starts, while Nichole and Nathalie Maravillo have done their best to replace the two-time MBL-P Defensive Player of the Year, Marcella Gudiel.

Junior Sofia Cori, meanwhile, has replaced Nicole Garcia, a two-time all-league first time selection, in goal.

N.M.C. will begin its league slate on Jan. 8 at Gilroy.

PAJARO VALLEY

If this year’s team were stuck in last year’s MBL-Pacific, Pajaro Valley coach Kassie Marquez would be worried about the Grizzlies’ chances of staying competitive in games. But being in the PCAL-Cypress has eased the coach’s concerns.

“I’m so glad that we ended up [in the PCAL-C],” Marquez said.

The Grizzlies graduated nine seniors from last year’s team, which finished last in the MBL-P, and this year’s team has felt the absence of last leaders Emma Arroyo, Jasmine Paniagua and Natalie Gallegos.

High-scoring sophomore Jasmin Castillo has stepped in as the team’s captain, but the Grizzlies have struggled with numbers. Marquez said the program has 26 players — six seniors — split over a varsity and junior varsity team.

“We’re going to keep the two teams, even if we have just 11 on varsity and 11 on J.V.,” Marquez said. “The level is so much different. Some of our girls aren’t ready yet.”

Castillo still figures to be a bright spot for Pajaro Valley this season. She last season was named the MBL-P Newcomer of the Year, and scored a program record 22 goals. She said she’d like to beat last year’s mark this winter, and expects to carry a lot of the offensive responsibilities without Arroyo feeding her passes.

“We have a lot of new players, and I have to do a lot of work while they get used to the varsity game,” said Castillo, who already has nine goals over six games. “We lost nine seniors last year, that’s a lot.”

ST. FRANCIS

St. Francis last season set the program record for wins in a season (9), but still struggled to compete against the powers of the SCCAL and finished second-to-last. Now in the PCAL-Cypress, the Sharks feel like they have an opportunity to compete against every team in the league.

“The girls are excited,” said St. Francis coach Chris Croghan. “It’s going to make for a fun season. Every single game is going to be close. There’s not going to be any blowouts either way.”

Croghan took over for Vince D. Monroy, who last season helped a seven-player senior class get off to a 7-0 start — the program’s best start and longest winning streak. Offensive stars Clare Tershy (12 goals, 6 assists) and Savannah Guel (8 goals, 2 assists) are gone, and defensive standout Katie Farley also graduated. But midfielder Riley Croghan — Chris’s daughter — is back for her senior season after scoring a team-high 16 goals and dishing five assists last year.

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St. Francis sophomore Devlyn Gomez, right, is expected to score plenty of goals for the Sharks this winter. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian

Sophomore forward Devlyn Gomez, junior midfielder Ashley Raich and senior defender Monica Colin also return to the starting lineup for the Sharks, who for the second consecutive season have both varsity and junior varsity teams.

“We’re a little inexperienced, but we make up for it with hustle and heart,” Croghan said. “The girls play really hard, and effort leads to good things.”

WATSONVILLE

Through two PCAL Mission division games, Watsonville has looked like one of the top teams in the league’s second-toughest division.

The Wildcatz beat Pacific Collegiate School and Carmel by a combined score of 7-0. King City and Alvarez are also undefeated in PCAL-M play at the break, and both have a pair of blowout wins over league foes.

“Two wins, two good wins, it helps us build our confidence as a team to know that we can compete against good teams,” Guerrero said.

That upped confidence will serve the Wildcatz well when they return to action, as they play away games against Alvarez and King City over their first three contests of the new year.

Watsonville lost stars Gabby Felix, Annah Ramirez and Annalee Robledo — a trio that led the program to a league title two seasons ago — to graduation, but was pleasantly surprised by Jimenez and Guerrero, whom have played well in starting roles during the early season. The Wildcatz also carry another sophomore, Denise Corrales, and another freshman, Ariana Alvarez, to go along with their eight seniors and nine juniors.

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Watsonville senior Dalia Garcia, right, returns to the starting lineup this winter. — Tony Nunez/Register-Pajaronian

“We’ve got a good mix of girls, as far as the grades go,” Mondragon said. “We could be a young team, but we also have seniors and juniors who keep us stable and balanced.”

Junior defenders Jasmine Orendain and Raquel Estanquero are the team’s vocal leaders who set a physical tone for a smallish team. Junior striker Elyanna Magdaleno is a big body that can win one-on-ones and put the ball away. And shifty senior midfielder Ashley Haduca is a steadying presence in the middle of the field.

Along with those four, seniors Zuli Alcantar, Jocelyn Gonzalez and Dalia Garcia also return to the starting lineup from last year’s team.

“Last year we weren’t really complete as a team, but this year we really got to know each other more,” Magdaleno said. “That’s really the main part about being a team, it’s like being your second family.”

•••

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Meier_Aptos_Soccer_2018-19_Mug

Olivia Meier (Sr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Forward/Midfielder

Why she’ll be great >> The future Binghamton Bearcat will bring the scoring punch this season

Caroline_Miller_Aptos_Soccer_2018-19

Caroline Miller (Sr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Goalkeeper

Why she’ll be great >> Leader of the defense is in her fourth varsity season and third as a starter

Bynn_Mitchell_Aptos_Soccer_2018

Brynn Mitchell (Jr.)

School >> Aptos

Position >> Midfielder

Why she’ll be great >> Third-year varsity star can play multiple positions at a high level

Jasmine_Orrendain_WHS_Soccer_2018-19

Jasmine Orendain (Jr.)

School >> Watsonville

Position >> Defender

Why she’ll be great >> A true eraser in the backline, Orendain is in her third varsity season

Brianna_Guerrero_WHS_Soccer_2018-19

Brianna Guerrero (So.)

School >> Watsonville

Position >> Midfielder

Why she’ll be great >> Watsonville’s offense flows through Guerrero’s feet in the center of the field

Riley_Croghan_SF_Soccer_2018_mug

Riley Croghan (Sr.)

School >> St. Francis

Position >> Midfielder

Why she’ll be great >> High-energy player that can create turnovers and lead the break

Kailey_morrell_MVC_Soccer_Mug_2018

Kailey Morrell (Sr.)

School >> Monte Vista Christian

Position >> Forward

Why she’ll be great >> One of only two seniors for the Mustangs, Morrell brings needed experience

Jana_Komposch_MVC_Soccer_2018

Jana Komposch (Fr.)

School >> Monte Vista Christian

Position >> Midfielder

Why she’ll be great >> A true scorer that will put pressure on the defense

Jasmin_Castillo_PV_Soccer_Mug_2018

Jasmin Castillo (So.)

School >> Pajaro Valley

Position >> Forward

Why she’ll be great >> After scoring 22 goals last season, the team captain already has 9 through 6 games

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