Calistoga enters this season with a roster chocked full of inexperienced players.

But if last year’s team proved anything, it’s that the outside world’s definition of rebuilding is perceived internally as reloading, and the Wildcats don’t measure their potential based on the expectations projected onto them.

Here’s some evidence.

After earning a North Central League II title in 2015, Calistoga returned a handful of those players last fall. Danny Almanza, an assistant on that championship team, then took over as head coach. Tradition and pride said the team was likely to be competitive, but few could have predicted what followed.

Not only did the Wildcats match the number of overall wins (16), but they went deeper into the section playoffs, and it wasn’t one of those happy-to-be-here things, either. They took an unexpected 1-0 lead into stoppage time of the semifinals against top-seeded Making Waves Academy of Richmond before losing a 2-1 heartbreaker in extra time.

Take two defensive breakdowns away, and the stifling defense they played that day could have easily carried them into the championship match.

Then again, that’s the fickle nature of the game and why its drama keeps us coming back for more.

One of the players returning this fall is senior Manuel Zavala, who was second on the team with 42 points, scoring 18 goals and recording six assists last season on his way to being named All-County Offensive Player of the Year.

Zavala is an example of the type of player Almanza is trying to develop – one who can play any position and understands each role. The coach also mentioned Mario “Gio” Avina, Abad Cuenca, Sammy Cruz and Manuel Garcia as other players who fit that mold.

So with versatility to boast, Zavala is hoping an encore may be on the horizon.

“Last year we had a whole different team,” he said, “and then this year, the same players that came out (again), we all sat down and talked to each other, (and said) that we had to work out together and get far this year like last year.”

One guy Calistoga will be leaning on in the back is goalkeeper Jose Lopez. He earned the job as a freshman last year and validated that decision in numerous matches throughout the campaign. One of them was the playoff game against Making Waves, stopping shot after shot against a high-powered attack.

“In terms of his development, he’s been growing up … he’s picking up where he left off last year,” Almanza said of the sophomore. “He’s been playing club over the summer in Napa just as he was last year. Now it’s just a matter of basically letting him know the potential his teammates have. Sometimes, as a goalie, you’re kind of separate from the rest of the group – just in terms of the position – and you may doubt the potential of your team, and your motivation isn’t always there. We noticed that with him last year, and so it’s something that we constantly work with him (on), being able to motivate him and get him in the right spot whether it’s at practice or in games.”

Lopez embodies the directive that each position has to be earned rather than given. That means the underclassmen, which make up the majority of the roster, have just as much a chance to see the field as their senior counterparts.

And so far, Gio Avina said he’s liked what he’s seen from the younger guys.

“I’m confident with them,” he said. “I just like how they play and they try their best.”

For Almanza and assistant coach Enrique Ponce, they’re focused on enhancing what worked and improving on the lessons they learned down the stretch – primarily developing more on-field communication between the players.

“We’re trying to keep what worked for us, and there’s some things we need to change,” said Almanza. “And we’re still working on it right now. We need to work more as a unit; more together. They get along and everything, so maybe that’s what’s stopping some of the players from – not yelling at each other – but getting on each other in a positive way.”

That bond that sometimes prevents Calistoga’s players from sharing constructive criticism with each other might also be what allows them to be so competitive each year.

“I think it’s the small community and the connection,” Almanza said. “These guys, they enter the same school starting in seventh grade, so technically they’re in school together longer if you think about it. Most of them start playing together from middle school and it just transitions into the high school.

“They all just really get along, regardless if it’s a small freshman or the biggest senior. They all play their little part in building the team. I feel like that’s huge because sometimes you can have teams where there’s two or three groups within the team … but since I’ve started coaching here, I’ve (haven’t) seen that.”

The seniors are Zavala and Eduardo Avina. The juniors are Jesus Garcia, Manuel Garcia, Cuenca, Erick Garcia and Gio Avina.

Lopez, Cruz, Jesus Rojas Mendoza, who is playing both football and soccer this fall, Ignacio Mendoza, and Adan Rodriguez represent the sophomores.

The freshman class consists of Byron Avina, Aaron Carrillo, Wilmer Ulloa, and Christian Robledo.

The Wildcats have started the year 4-2, with wins against Lower Lake, Technology, Willits and Credo of Rohnert Park. Cuenca has been a force so far, recording four hat tricks and 15 goals through the first slate of games.

But the true marker was Friday’s tilt against league rival Roseland University Prep, which edged them and fellow runner-up Anderson Valley for last year’s league crown. And similar to the first meeting last season, Calistoga lost by a single goal, 4-3, which raises the stakes on the remainder of NCL II play.

“Right now, I saw (in the first few games) that we’re learning how to play together,” Zavala said. “It’s whole new team – we have some old players that played last year, too, and we’re actually getting there each day, more and more at practice.”

In the team’s first loss, Calistoga went blow for blow with Head-Royce of Oakland, a perennial playoff team that upset the league champion ‘Cats in Logvy Park two years ago.

Almanza said that, despite the loss and having a limited roster that day, that match was the first eye-opener for this team’s potential.

“It’s one thing to talk about it, and then another thing for them to see with their own eyes,” he said. “So (that game) was a little bit of that, being able to see that they can compete against any team, even the top team … The fact that our youngest can go out and at least compete for most of the game – their goals were a couple of mistakes on our part, but for the most part it was back and forth, back and forth.”

As this group of players continues to mesh together on the field, the program’s reputation around the league remains the same. For teams that want to contend for the championship, Calistoga will be circled on the calendar.

And that means the Wildcats have no choice but to play up to the competition – something they’ve proven they can do for many years now.

“That’s always going to be something this school fights for, especially because teams come here and play us like (we’re the champions),” Almanza said. “They know everything that happened from the season before and two seasons ago. We kind of always have that target … but we’re going to take it game by game but having it in mind that we know what our angles are. If we work really hard throughout the season, we shouldn’t have any problems to reach our goals.”


Yousef has been a sports reporter at the Napa Valley Register since February 2015, and hosts the Napa Register Radio podcast. He is a proud UGA graduate and has written for the Sacramento Bee, The Advocate and the Athens Banner-Herald, among others.