The boys soccer showdown between defending league champions at Memorial Stadium on Tuesday night was a reminder that this year could be American Canyon’s last chance at a title for a while, as it tuned up for Thursday night’s Solano County Athletic League opener against Benicia.
Reigning Monticello Empire League champ Vintage used its talented and deep lineup to rout the Wolves, 6-0, in their last nonleague matchup.
Both programs will leave the Sac-Joaquin Section to be members of the North Coast Section’s new Vine Valley Athletic League next winter. American Canyon head coach Gabriel Zepeda will be without this year’s 13 talented seniors, four of whom were on the varsity when they were freshmen.
“Right now we’re at the top of our league, but next year is going to be difficult because I’m going to lose most of my starting lineup and we’re going to be playing hard teams like these guys (Vintage) and Napa,” the coach said. “We’ll see how it goes, but we’re going to be in a rebuilding process for a few years to come.”
If the Wolves are to leave the SJS with their third SCAC title in four seasons, they will have to stay healthier than they’ve been so far this season. They were without top scoring threats Bryan Ayala and Luis Flores before Tuesday’s game due to injury or illness, and five teammates got hurt in the game. But Zepeda didn’t want to make excuses.
“I don’t think our team played as well as they know how to tonight, but it’s just the way it goes,” he said. “I told them ‘Hey, don’t worry about the score; just play as hard as you can and learn from it. That’s the best thing we can do.’”
It’s not Vanden or Bethel – which the Wolves shared their 2014 and 2016-17 conference titles with, respectively – Zepeda is most worried about in the SCAC. It’s Vallejo, which lost just 2-1 in overtime to Napa, and 3-2 to Vintage, last month.
“Vallejo will probably be our biggest obstacle. Benicia (third last year) is always in the top three, but hopefully we can do better than we did today. Bethel tied us for first last year, but they lost most of their starters. Vanden and Fairfield are in a rebuild process. Our kids are confident about the league. They’re battle-ready. We’ll just see how healthy they are.”
Vintage could head into Friday night’s MEL opener at Armijo too confident if it thinks about the fact Armijo lost 2-1 to American Canyon in mid-December.
But Crushers head coach Bernie Ochoa and assistants Alex Feliciano and Javier Covarrubias try to reinforce that if Vintage (10-2-1) doesn’t respect the game and play hard from whistle to whistle, it could be vulnerable against any opponent. Ochoa thinks that’s how the Crushers lost to McClatchy 2-0 last month and to Pittsburg 4-0 last week.
“We were missing some guys against Pittsburg, but it was no excuse. We came out flat. We just weren’t ready to play,” he said. “They got up on us early and got a red card on a hand ball in the box. So we go down 2-0 and we’re down a player the rest of the match. Any given day you can get beat.”
But they came back last Friday with a 3-2 win over University, getting two goals from Oscar Loyola and one from Marco Manzo. That win looked bigger after University stunned Vintage’s crosstown rival, Napa High, 4-2 on Saturday.
“University was a big win. It came down to the last minutes,” Ochoa said. “They are always a strong unit, a tough team to play, well-coached, always a top team in the North Coast Section, so it was a good game for us to bounce back.
“We always talk about, what’s going to be our character, how are we going to respond after a loss and move forward? Our biggest thing after the loss was being consistent.”
The Crushers’ depth shows in their stats – 15 players with at least a goal or assist — Manzo (eight goals, two assists), Loyola (five goals, two assists), Alex Cendejas (four goals, one assist), Erick Cid (three goals, three assists), Juan Carlos Zepeda (three goals, three assists), Gerardo Perez (three goals, one assist), Gustavo Maldonado (two goals), Christian Ceja (goal, three assists), Eduardo Gonzalez (goal, assist), Diego Cortez (goal, assist), Miguel Plancarte (goal, assist), Cole Geschwender (goal), Edgar Correa (assist), Miguel Gallegos (assist) and Jesus Gonzalez (assist).
In two weeks the Crushers will square off with Napa, which like Vintage did last year, went undefeated in the MEL in the fall of 2015.
The defensive-minded Indians, who host Wood Friday night, are led by Eduardo Blancas (five goals), Julio Alonzo and Juan Leon (three goals each), and Irving Flores, Mateo Villanueva and Javier Acuna (one goal apiece).
If Vintage ever wanted to brag that it beat University, Napa could flaunt its 1-0 win over Davis, a team Vintage tied 1-1.
“In league I honestly think it’s going to come down to us and Napa,” Ochoa said. “I think they’re going to be our toughest opponent, but you never know. I’m definitely satisfied with our preseason. We’re 10-2-1, but that doesn’t mean anything unless we do good things in league play. If we take care of business and focus on us and come ready to play, we don’t really have to worry about the opponent.”
The American Canyon and Vintage girls also placed the same in their respective leagues last season – third – though Vintage tied with Rodriguez and lost a coin flip to the Mustangs for the MEL’s final playoff berth.
Wolves head coach Travis Behn’s 2016-17 squad finished a close third behind champion Vanden and runner-up Benicia, which American Canyon visits for its SCAC opener Friday night. He’s glad the Wolves don’t play Vanden until Jan. 24.
“I think our toughest opponent is probably going to be Vanden. I didn’t see many graduating from their team last year, and they have the most club players of any team in our league,” Behn said.
The Wolves head to Benicia on a two-game win streak, after going winless in their previous seven games last month. Behn said that run of six losses and one tie was deceptive.
“The games we lost were really close,” he said of the skid. “One was 0-0 but because it was in a tournament we had to go to a shootout and lost (to Monterey Trail in the River City Cup third-place game). I think we did pretty well. We just had some games there where we lost by a slim margin or it was tied at half and we tried to win it and it didn’t work out. That was the game against Rodriguez. We were tied 0-0 at half and tried to make some changes and ended up losing 3-0.”
American Canyon (4-7-2) has scored 17 goals – eight by Ana Herrera, five by Jaylynn Del Rosario, and one apiece by Sophia Conlon, Isabelle Ramos, Tanya Rivas and Isabelle Aguilera.
Vintage took a 1-3-1 record into Thursday night’s MEL opener against visiting Armijo, led by Irais Hernandez with four goals, and Maggie Carpenter, Julia Kiser, Lauren Wagner, Megan Crowell and Mary Deeik with one apiece.
Armijo (8-2-1) had allowed only three goals all season – to Benicia and Inderkum, teams with nine wins apiece.
Napa (4-5-3), which has already doubled its wins of a year ago, should be in the playoff conversation this year. The Indians Alexia Kountouris with 10 goals. Hannah Williams, Berenice Lara-Gonzalez and Louanne Herve have also scored.