The Vintage girls soccer team may have been outscored by 13 goals in seven Monticello Empire League games, but Jordan Cooper and Sage Gregory have played the last two weeks like they want to finish big.

The senior captains, who turned in their best defensive performances for the Crushers (2-9-1, 1-6 MEL) in 1-0 losses to crosstown rival Napa High on Jan. 23 and first-place Armijo on Jan. 30, were looking forward to their Big Game rematch with Napa on Tuesday night.

“That was a good game, but next time we’re definitely looking for a win,” Gregory said after last Wednesday’s practice. “That would be a great end to our senior year.”

The Crushers gave up their most goals all season in a 4-0 home loss to Vacaville on Thursday. Vintage head coach Miguel Ayala seemed to have expected as much the day before, hoping his team would at least benefit from facing a Bulldogs squad led by six seniors have been varsity teammates for three years.

“Vacaville is fast, physical and big, and it’ll be a good matchup to pump us up for the Napa game,” the coach said Wednesday. “The first Big Game was physical and hard fought and we had a couple of chances, but we’re just young and we didn’t put them away. Napa is more experienced and they were able to finish theirs. But I was happy with our effort. We’re definitely smaller, so we have and we try to out-skill everybody. But we definitely gave them a fight. We’ll be ready for Tuesday.”

The first Big Game came on the heels of a 3-2 win over Wood in which the Crushers scored what are still their only goals in MEL play. With two goals by sophomore Irais Hernandez and one by freshman Mary Deeik, the game showed the Crushers’ best seasons may be just ahead. Their JV squad is 6-2-1 overall and 2-1-1 in the MEL, having beat Napa 4-1 last month.

“Our JV team is strong and we have five (sophomores or freshmen) on varsity playing significant minutes, which is encouraging for our program because I know we’re going in the right direction,” Ayala said. “All the teams we’ve played have complimented us, saying ‘Hey, you’ve got something going here. We’re going to be young for the next couple of years, and that’s a good thing.”

After tying Rodriguez for third place and losing a coin flip for the league’s final playoff berth last season, the Crushers were not out of this year’s playoff picture yet going into Tuesday night’s game. But they needed to run the table – beat Napa and Wood this week and Rodriguez next week – and hope Rodriguez (4-3) didn’t win one more game and secure third place.

“The season hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to, but I’m trying to teach them that if you’re being competitive and always trying your best, we always have a chance,” Ayala said. “No matter what our record is or what the other team’s record is, we still get to play the game. If we try our hardest, I’m always going to be happy with the outcome.”

Win or lose, Ayala is confident Cooper and Gregory will play hard every game and continue to be good examples for teammates.

The diminutive Cooper has played soccer for 12 years. She and Vintage teammates Megan Crowell and Jessica Schreuder were on the Napa United 17-and-under team that won the Gold Division of the NorCal Premier League’s Region 2, 3, 4 South two years ago.

Cooper has also played tennis for Vintage the last three springs. The stamina she gets from tennis allows her to be as effective at center back as the taller players that normally play that position.

“Everybody sees Jordan as being this smaller girl, but she’s feisty, and that’s what I love about her,” Ayala said. “It doesn’t matter the size or the strength difference, she’s in a battle no matter what. She’s just a fighter, and she’s playing a position where it’s kinda hard. You look for those center backs to be big and strong and she’s small, but strong. She’s petite but she’s fierce. Everything she doesn’t have, she makes up for with something else.”

Gregory has also played soccer for 12 years, and lacrosse, for the Napa Force club, the last seven years.

“The set-up on the field, the stamina and conditioning are very similar in both sports,” she said. “I’m a defender in both sports, too. I stop the goals. Sometimes I think it’s a very devalued position – goalie too. People don’t realized how much the goalie and defenders affect the game as much as the ones who are scoring the goals.”

Gregory is one of Vintage’s taller players, but mobile.

“Sage holds her ground and plays hard every single game,” Ayala said. “She and Jordan don’t complain much. They’ll get kicked or something and get right back up. I think I worry about them more than they do. They’re such fighters and troopers that they’ll just get right back up and keep going.

“Those two girls are perfect examples of what we’re looking for in this program – people that are willing to work. I might have crazy ideas about how I do things, but they believe in it, they buy into it, and we go forward.”

Gregory and Cooper were also captains as sophomores on the JV, keeping team morale up.

“Since we haven’t won many games, our positivity has kind of been sinking,” Gregory said. “We work really hard and play physically but we just can’t get the ball in the back of the net, so it’s kind of discouraging. But as a team we’ve grown immensely from the beginning of the year, so we have nothing to be ashamed of.

“One thing we say a lot as a team is it doesn’t come down to who is the better team, it comes down to who wants it more. So you don’t have to be faster or have better ball skills, you just have to go for the ball, go 100 percent and want the win. So it’s kind of been the responsibility of Jordan and me to make sure that we’re being positive and good team players.”

Added Cooper, “It’s also about sportsmanship because once you’ve lost enough games, you start to get frustrated and you can take it out on the other team. But we try to be models for respecting opponents and going in line at the end and shaking their hands and saying good game.”

Gregory said, as captains, they also make sure the varsity Crushers of the present and future are supporting each other through the grind of the soccer season.

“In the past there’s been a slight gap between varsity and JV, not much bonding between the two groups, so this year we’ve tried to be a lot more inclusive so that it’s easier for JV to move up to varsity next year,” she said. “We’ve done a few team bondings so everybody gets to know each other. We’ve had one where we watched a Christmas movie, one where we went bowling, just a bunch of different stuff to get us together.”

The captains won’t likely be bumping into each other in their careers beyond the field. Gregory said she’ll likely major in math or economics in college. Cooper plans to get bachelor’s and doctorate degrees in psychology and become a therapist, and she’s gotten a head start by being in Vintage’s peer support program.

“It’s student mentoring, where you’re there for emotional support,” Cooper explained. “It has a lot to do with confidentiality and learning about students on campus, since we mentor students of all grades.”

She’s also getting a head start as a soccer captain, trying to keep the dark clouds away.

“We need to finish the season strong, keep our work ethic up, and not be discouraged by our previous losses,” she said. “Just to play the games strong, and finish off the season well.”

“Beyond winning,” added Gregory, “our goal is to leave it all out on the field, go 100 percent in our last games, have no regrets, and become a family at the end.”

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Sports Reporter

Andy Wilcox is a sportswriter-photographer for the Napa Valley Register. He's had similar roles in Walnut Creek, Grass Valley, Auburn, Tracy and Patterson. He grew up in Ohio. His wife, Laura, is a pastry chef. He also enjoys playing guitar and piano.