The move to winter has been smooth for the American Canyon High boys soccer team so far, despite long stretches without games.

When the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section moved soccer season from the first third of the school year to the second, it forced teams to deal with not only colder and wetter conditions, but also – at least in the case of the Wolves – nearly a month-long break from competition during the holidays.

American Canyon came off that 27-day holiday hiatus last year by dropping its preseason finale, 2-0 to Rodriguez, a team that had nine games under its belt while the Wolves had only five.

But the Wolves bounced back a week later and began a 9-1 Solano County Athletic Conference championship campaign, their second title in three years, losing only to co-champion Bethel in their seventh conference match.

After playing only 15 regular-season games last year, American Canyon has 17 on this year’s schedule.

“It was hard to find more opponents,” head coach Gabriel Zepeda said. “My goal was to have around 23 games for the whole season. I was able to schedule 17 games and a tournament. Then the tournament was canceled due to the lack of teams, so I lost three games right away. That is the reason why we only have this many games this season. (Also) during the winter season, some of the players go to visit relatives out of the country, so it is hard to schedule games during this time of the year.”

When this year’s Wolves (1-0) visit Rodriguez at 6 p.m. Thursday, it will have been 10 days since their only official game so far, a 1-0 home win over Petaluma.

They also played a scrimmage the week before against Casa Grande, another school they will play in their new North Coast Section league next winter.

The week-and-a-half break came at a good time for Zepeda, who put his second and third starters on the injury list against Petaluma.

“They can take more time to make sure they are completely healed,” the coach said.

Last year’s top scorer with 16 goals, senior striker Luis Flores, and one of the team’s top defenders, senior Mario Diaz, went out with leg injuries during the game and last year’s second-leading scorer with 12 goals, senior striker-midfielder Brian Ayala, missed the contest completely due to an ankle injury.

Zepeda said Flores will be out for a few more weeks, and hopes to have Diaz and Ayala, one of two team captains, back next week.

All three are very aggressive players, but Zepeda doesn’t expect them to come back playing any differently.

“It’s just the way they are,” he said. “They’re fast, quick. I don’t think they know how to play any other way. It’s just part of their nature.”

Meanwhile, American Canyon will continue a four-game, six-day stretch by hosting River City on Friday night, visiting Pioneer on Monday night, and traveling to Armijo on Dec. 13.

After that, it’s another 27-day holiday break before the Wolves close their preseason at Vintage. Going into that game, the Crushers will have been scheduled to play 14 games – and the Wolves just six.

It makes practices during the holidays that much more important.

“We take practice very seriously during the winter break,” Zepeda said. “We do the best to stay on top of our game.”

Even without the starters currently injured, the Wolves should be in good shape. Zepeda said he had 37 players try out for the varsity team and kept 20, with some being put on the JV squad.

Eight other seniors also return – defenders Roberto Aguilar, Miguel Bejar, Alexander Gonzalez and Eduardo Hernandez, who is a co-captain; and midfielders Gabriel Hernandez, Daniel Torres, Isaac Hernandez and Marilsu Mendez.

The juniors are led by returning midfielder Jose Lopez and another midfielder who would have likely played varsity last year if not for a knee injury, Chris Hernandez, who scored against Petaluma and twice in the scrimmage.

“Chris just came back from knee surgery so he’s a little bit timid, but he’s getting his confidence back again,” Zepeda said of the son of American Canyon JV head coach Javier Hernandez.

The only starting positions Zepeda had to fill after last year were those taken by Chris Hernandez and by his own son, junior goalkeeper Gabriel Alejandro Zepeda, who played keeper his freshman year and defender last year on the JV squad.

The other varsity newcomers are seniors Rafael Farias, David Campos and Deckson Menendez, and juniors Adrian Sierra, Jaime Santos, Jacob Escobar and Wilder Mazariegos.

Coach Zepeda said a strength of the team is its back line of Diaz, Gonzalez, Eduardo Hernandez, Farias and Aguilar.

Another strength is academic eligibility.

“A few years back, we were missing about five or six kids due to grades, but they’re helping each other maintain them now,” the coach said. “Grades are not an obstacle anymore. It just depends on skill level.”

Coach Zepeda expects Vallejo to be the Wolves’ toughest competition.

“Bethel lost most of their starters from last year,” he said of the Jaguars winning their first-ever SCAC title. “They’re still going to be fighting hard and Matt (Ristow) is a good coach. Each team is different, every game is different, so it’s hard to tell until it happens. But our kids are hungry for another title.”

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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.