The Calistoga girls’ soccer team has only been practicing together for a couple weeks but is already coming together under the leadership of new head coach Dan Blankenship.
“We’ve been together three weeks and we’re already family,” said Blankenship before the team’s practice last Tuesday. “It moved real fast that way. … It’s just that small town vibe and it’s really key to what we’re trying to do and so far it’s worked out great. We haven’t had any bumps. I’m here to coach and that’s what I’m doing. It’s everything that I expected.”
The Wildcats are coming off a strong 2017 season where they went 8-9 overall and 6-7 in North Central League II play, making it all the way to the second round of the North Coast Section Div. III playoffs before falling to league foe and eventual section champion St. Vincent de Paul.
This year’s iteration of the Wildcats returns every player, minus the seniors, from last year’s team and adds a handful of new players. Calistoga has 19 players on this year’s roster, up from 15 last season.
As of Tuesday, they’re 1-3 on the season, with the one win coming via forfeit from Anderson Valley. The Wildcats will play in the newly reorganized NCL III this season against Technology, Roseland University Prep, Upper Lake and Mendocino.
It may be a growing year for the Wildcats but Blankenship is ready to build a foundation that he hopes will lead to success.
“We’re way behind but we’re almost ready to put a quality product on the field,” he said. “They’re very quick learners and they have a passion for playing together as a team, which is great because they all get along, whether win or lose, they’re still chit-chatting on the bus. That’s great to start off.”
Part of the reason they’re behind is not because of a lack of skill but a lack of practice time together. Blankenship was hired late and began running practices a week before they played their first game.
“I kept reading that there was no coach,” said Blankenship. “I’m like, ‘I’m qualified,’ and if they’re looking for a coach, they might end up with somebody that’s not as qualified. So I just wanted to give the school and the community a quality coach.
“I’ve had great success coaching soccer so I just asked my family if I could do it and they said yeah. I talked to [Calistoga athletic directors] Louise [Owens] and Eric [Heitz] and made it happen. Started coaching, we’re about two weeks behind and then we had to get a couple girls cleared. We played two games and we still have girls coming on the team.”
Blankenship began coaching high school athletics in 2000, when he was hired to coach boys and girls soccer at the since-folded Hogan High School in Vallejo. Since then, he coached golf at Bethel High School in Vallejo before becoming the head girls’ soccer coach at Vanden High School in Fairfield.
In his two seasons at Vanden, he led the Vikings to a 31-9-3 record and outscored teams 157-32. In the 2016-17 season, Vanden made it all the way to the semifinals of the Sac-Joaquin section playoffs.
Blankenship chooses to take a defense-first approach to coaching. He’s still getting to know his personnel so progress has been somewhat slow in that department, but he’s happy with where the Wildcats are at.
“Once we get our solid eight defenders, I think we’ll be OK,” he said. “If we get some midfielders play on the wings and get some solid play out of them, I think we’ll be able to move the ball.”
Currently, their offense revolves around junior captain Lizbet Escobedo, who Blankenship says is “our main ballhandler.” Once the team gets more familiar with his system and approach, he thinks they’ll surprise some teams.
“Once we start moving the ball, we’re going to be dangerous,” he said. “We have weapons; we just have to get them the ball. We need some stronger kicks when we clear it out, and if we get the ball to our dangerous players, we could be a dangerous team.”
While the Wildcats haven’t won officially won a game yet this season, Blankenship thinks that once they get a taste of winning, the positive results will start piling up.
“All we have to do is win a couple games and it’s going to infect us,” he said. “We know how to lose, but once we know how to win, I think that we’re going to grow with that.”
The NCL III is top-heavy with Technology coming off an 18-4 year that ended in the section semifinals, and Roseland University Prep which went 12-5-3 last season. The Wildcats have their work cut out for them but Blankenship and the Wildcats aren’t backing down.
“By the end of the season, I think it should come together,” he said. “I see the energy, I see the passion, and a little bit of skill and experience and I think we’ll be there.”