One of the most exciting moments in the Justin-Siena boys soccer season had just happened – the Braves scored – and the first words out of head coach Wayne Hardy’s mouth Tuesday night were “Nothing changes!”
It’s not that he had grown weary of his team’s scoring all the time. After all, it was only Justin-Siena’s 10th goal – 13 games into the season.
He just didn’t want what had happened the last time the Braves had played Tamalpais in a Marin County Athletic League contest. That day in Mill Valley, they had taken a 1-0 halftime lead on another exciting goal by a senior, Vincent Fuentes, who bent in a free kick just inside the far post. But they changed their mindsets, apparently, from focused to overconfident, and watched the Red-Tailed Hawks soar back to prevail 4-1, and had a very long drive home.
It might have been tempting for Justin-Siena to get overly excited this time, when senior Sebastian Suarez headed in a perfectly-placed free kick from junior Philip Gaertner – an international student from Germany – during stoppage time of the first half.
Moments later, Suarez and fellow 12th-graders Eric Guzman, Fuentes, Roberto Medina and Javier Porres would be honored with their parents during the Senior Night ceremony.
But they kept playing hard, especially junior goalkeeper Aidan Dolinar. Tamalpais knotted the score with 14 minutes left, when Dolinar stopped Kashif de-Leede’s shot but accidentally kicked the deflected ball backward into his own goal.
“Aiden is really hard on himself, but he’s really talented. I know he has a bright future ahead of him,” said Guzman, the last defender in front of Dolinar. “I kinda hurt my back so I felt I could have played a lot better, too. It was an own goal, an unlucky mistake, but I know Aiden’s going to hold it down next year for sure.”
Thankfully for the Braves, “nothing changed” in Dolinar’s focus. When the Hawks were awarded a penalty kick a few minutes later, Dolinar dove to his left and kept it from sneaking inside the right post, preserving the 1-1 score. It was his second block in four penalty attempts against Justin-Siena this season.
“Aidan has tremendously improved from last season to this season,” Hardy said. “He’s a lot more confident in the box, he’s gotten his voice, he gets his feet set, and he reacts to the shot.”
It would have been the Braves’ first league win since Oct. 10, 2014. They’ve had only three nonleague wins since then, but they’ve never started flat because of their quickly waning league-title chances.
“We usually come out really strong those first five, 10 minutes of every game, and we never let anybody’s record depict how we should or shouldn’t play. But it’s hard keeping that mentality through the whole game,” Hardy said. “We still like to go into every game like they’re our rivals, so as long as you go in head first, there’s only one way the game’s going to end.”
Added Suarez, “Even though we don’t have the best record in the league, that doesn’t matter because I know that all my brothers have my back and it’s just a special moment for all of us.”
Suarez’s goal was only his second of the season, the first having come during a season-opening 3-3 tie at San Marin way back on Dec. 2.
Though the Braves had lost every game since then – they will take 0-11-2 overall and 0-10-2 MCAL records into Thursday’s 3:15 p.m. season finale against San Rafael at Drake High in San Anselmo – Suarez and Guzman said it’s been a final high school season they will never want to forget.
“It’s awesome, the bonds we’ve created with the other seniors and the newcomers,” Suarez said. “Regardless of how we do (record-wise), my love for the game makes me want to keep playing. My teammates are awesome. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t enjoy it so much. They’re really the heart of the team.”
Guzman, a varsity starter since his sophomore year, said the Braves understand how tough the MCAL is and try to worry about their next game instead of the losses.
“Our record doesn’t match our heart,” Guzman said. “We’re really just all dedicated and this is what we love to do, come out here every day, and the coaches are helping develop us into better players. That’s really thanks to them that we’ve kept at it and stayed strong, because most teams would just collapse, but we’re still fighting until the last minute of every game.
“I’m really proud of my team. I wouldn’t want to play with any other guys. We go against really elite teams over there in Marin and just carry on the hard work that we’ve been doing throughout these last four years. I know my guys will be doing good next year.”
Hardy will miss his seniors.
“I’m really excited for Sebastian and really proud of all our seniors, especially Vincent and Eric, for being here all four years and just really dedicating themselves to the program,” the coach said. “I can always count on those guys to be there. They really make it a point, no matter what the situation is, to fight for each other on and off the field. It’s like a family, and family doesn’t quit on you.”
Along with Gaertner, who scored on two free kicks in a recent 4-2 loss to San Marin, and Dolinar, next year’s returners are expected to be Jordan Bowman-Davis, Arturo Fernandez, Antonio Hernandez, William Melancon, Austin Parlett, Daniel Saucedo and Christopher Gutierrez, who has scored multiple goals this season. The sophomores are Josiah Gutierrez, CarlJohn Meissenhalter and Jacob Smith, and the freshmen are Jose Del Carmen, Luis Quirarte and Nicholas Zeiter.
Hardy is assisted for the second year in row by Scott Kubicka, and they are joined on the staff this year by Justin-Siena soccer alum Eric Gutierrez, Vintage soccer alum Andrew Carlile, and St. Helena soccer alum Gary Tovar, who helped Napa Valley College win the Bay Valley Conference title this past fall.
Hardy said he’s tried to keep the game fun for his players.
“Soccer is a very competitive and very war-type sport, but you can’t lose the fun in the practices and games because when things become not fun, what’s the point in really doing it? You gotta have some passion, some heart and, especially, some fun behind it.
“These teams we compete against (in the MCAL) – Tam, San Marin, Marin Catholic, Redwood – have such a long-standing culture, so it’s good to be able to compete against those schools.”
The Braves allowed six goals in a game against Novato and four goals in three other MCAL games, but otherwise have yielded only three or fewer.
“Compared to last year, when we were giving up four, five, six, seven goals a game, we’ve made huge progress,” said Hardy, who assisted predecessor Mikael Tigrett for two years before taking the helm last year.
The coach said he’ll be back next winter when the Braves begin playing in the new Vine Valley Athletic League against American Canyon, Casa Grande, Napa, Petaluma, Sonoma Valley and Vintage.
“It’s the transition from one tough league to another tough league,” he said. “Napa and Vintage have very strong soccer programs and American Canyon’s up there. They’re all public high schools, so just the talent pool is going to be there. But like any other season, we’re going to take it one game at a time, one practice at a time, and not get ahead of ourselves.”