The leaves on the trees have changed color six times since Bianca Gonzalez helped lead the Vintage High girls soccer program to its first-ever Monticello Empire League title as a senior.

On Nov. 9, right around her 23rd birthday, her University of Antelope Valley squad lost a thriller at UC Merced – in a penalty kick shootout after two overtimes – in the first round of the California Pacific Conference Tournament.

It was the end of a second exciting season in a row for the Pioneers under second-year head coach Roman DuChateau, and only the third season in the program’s existence at the NAIA school in Lancaster.

They had finished 7-3 in the Cal Pac in 2016, and 13-6 overall after falling in the conference tournament championship game.

This year, having lost only three seniors from the year before, the Pioneers finished second in the Cal Pac at 6-1-1 and 12-4-2 overall. They won their opener over the No. 8 team in the country, Northwest University of Kirkland, Wash., 1-0; took No. 6 Westmont to overtime in a 3-2 loss, and fell just 1-0 to No. 13 The Master’s.

“This year’s team chemistry was a lot stronger than last year’s, I think, because we saw our potential and knew we could compete with any team,” said Gonzalez, an American Canyon resident.

Despite having blanked UC Merced 5-0 in their Cal Pac opener in late September, the Pioneers couldn’t get past the Bobcats in the end. After starting 6-0 in conference play, with 25 goals scored and just two allowed, they went 1-2-1 down the stretch. It included their only home loss in two seasons – 3-0 to conference champion Embry-Riddle of Prescott, Ariz.

“I’m not sure what happened to us towards the end. We lost our spark,” Gonzalez said. “Maybe our bodies were just too beat up. But it was a great season nonetheless.”

It was a great one for Gonzalez, who added All-Cal Pac First Team to the pile of awards she’s earned over the years.

“Bianca Gonzalez was a joy to coach and a big part of our success at the University of Antelope Valley,” DuChateau said. “I am so proud of all of her accomplishments on the soccer field and in the classroom over the past two years. Being a 4.0 GPA student as well as a first team all-conference selection is no easy task. We will miss Bianca around here, but are very excited to watch her tackle this next chapter of her life. The kid has a very bright future.”

Despite taking six years to play four college seasons, Gonzalez has always seemed to know what she wanted. She took off the fall right out of high school to focus on her studies at NVC, then scored five goals to help the Storm’s 2013 squad finish fourth in the BVC at 9-5 and 12-10-1 overall.

Napa Valley didn’t field a team in 2014 due to a shortage of players. But in 2015, under head coach Duncan McMartin, Gonzalez led the Storm with nine goals and added six assists to finish second on the team with 24 points. Having moved from the midfield to the back line, she earned not only Bay Valley Conference Defender of the Year honors but was named to the All-Northern California Team.

In the spring of 2016, with a 3.67 GPA and plans to major in business management, she signed a letter of intent to play for the Pioneers.

She had four goals and no assists as a left midfielder in 2016, and two goals and three assists as a left fullback this year.

Gonzalez said the key to her success has been staying focused.

“Regardless of things going on at home or conflicts happening here at UAV, I kept telling myself that this would be the best season of my soccer career. And I think I lived up to it and showed my love for my position as left fullback,” she said. “But I couldn’t have succeeded without my teammates – especially my other two defensive partners, Savanna Shaffer and Reyna Ruiz. I never played three in the back line until this year and it was really cool. I think as defenders, we shined with just the three of us back there.”

Coming from a NVC program where players competed hard despite having an average field and broken-down scoreboard may have prepared Gonzalez well for Antelope Valley.

“Playing at UAV was not your typical college athlete experience. We weren’t decked out with a great amount of gear, and didn’t have the nicest practice field. We were ultimately the underdogs and every other school looked down on us. But that’s what set us apart,” she said. “We didn’t need the charter buses or matching shoes to win games. We still showed up and put UAV on the map.

“Our motto was, ‘What are you willing to do?’ – for the team, to get a result. Coach Roman would even joke with us by saying, ‘I don’t think you guys want to be content with being OK – you have the rest of your life to be OK. Now is the time to put everything you have into making it to the national tournament.’ ”

DuChateau, a Roseville native, played for Cosumnes River College, Stanislaus State, and the Sacramento Scorpions of the Premier Arena Soccer League. He began coaching in 2002, and in 2015 guided the Lassen Community College women to a 10-0 Golden Valley Conference mark.

“Coach Roman was always there to motivate us and was never shy to tell someone when they were slacking off at practice or not performing well,” Gonzalez said. “A new assistant coach came on board this year, Guillermo Castro, who made a drastic impact on the program and the team. He introduced dynamic drills and demanded a higher level of play from us, which ultimately elevated our game.”

One of her assists came during an 8-1 nonconference win over Saint Katherine College of San Marcos. Gonzalez said one of her former Vintage and NVC teammates, Delia Jimenez, is on the Firebirds’ roster but redshirted this senior season due to injury.

This year’s Napa Valley College team actually had a sophomore named Bianca Gonzalez who went to Napa High.

“Yeah, my name is pretty common,” said the older one.

They’re not related. But another Storm freshman who received All-BVC honorable mention, Daniela Gonzalez, is the little sister of the older Bianca’s cousin, Yajaira Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said she plans to move back home to American Canyon in December to finish her business management degree because she can take her last two classes online.

“I’m definitely sad it’s over,” she said of her two seasons at Antelope Valley. “UAV is a really small school, but with so much talent. People don’t hear about us because we’re so small and not in the Los Angeles area, like most of our opponents, but our sports here are awesome. My experience as a Pioneer has been memorable. I’m so proud of my team and I want to thank them and the coaching staff for making it a really cool experience and one that I’ll never forget.”

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