There were plenty of highs and lows for the Calistoga boys soccer program over the last calendar year.
A 15-win season and the first league championship since 2015 last fall gave way to a disappointing upset loss in the second round of the playoffs. To make matters worse, head coach Danny Almanza, who had led the Wildcats to 44 wins over his three seasons at the helm, stepped down to pursue a job in the Bay Area.
Calistoga hired Charley Hester as head coach shortly before this season, but right away the 2019 campaign got off to a rocky start. St. Helena, a team the Wildcats had beaten in their previous three meetings, played them to a 2-2 draw. The Saints may have a better team than usual this season, but the tie was still tough for Calistoga to swallow.
In the month since that result, however, the Wildcats have returned to form. Their 5-0 win against Technology High on Friday was their fifth straight win and brought their record to 5-0-1 overall on the still relatively young season.
Their win over the Titans was also the Wildcats’ third win of the league season, which heats up in the coming weeks after a somewhat disjointed nonleague schedule. The Wildcats played only two of their four originally scheduled games since their opener on Aug. 28, after several games were rescheduled.
The Wildcats played only three games over the first 26 days on their season, but had five games over the next 12 days starting with St. Vincent back on Sept. 23. Those include matchups with Roseland Collegiate Prep and Credo, two teams Hester believes will challenge them in league.
Hester welcomes that heightened level of competition. While his team hasn’t played in many games yet, he has already noticed that it tends to play to the level of its opponents, whether up or down. The better teams, he hopes, will bring out the better side of the Wildcats.
“When the competition is there, when they’re playing a team that’s more equal to them, they step up,” the coach said.
Hester saw this firsthand in Calistoga’s 3-2 win at Mendocino two weeks ago.
“I was really proud of the guys with that because they figured out what it was they needed to do to win the game, and that was great,” he said. “But we’re working on improving every game, and we’ve got a tough week this week.”
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Despite the lack of early season reps, the Wildcats still boast 11 returning players on a 15-man roster and have enough talent to be in the conversation again for a league title.
Making up the team this season are seniors Joey Russo, Robert Romero, Adan Rodriguez, Jesus Rojas-Mendoza and Jose Lopez; juniors Ignacio Mendoza, Willmer Ulloa and Byron Avina; sophomores Jose Sanchez, Ivan Guzman, Alexis Escobedo, Isaac Garcia, Christian Caldera and Antonio Martinez; and freshman Christian Ramirez.
With so much experience returning, Hester hasn’t sought to make any major changes to the team this fall. Mainly he’s been trying to get to know his team better.
“I didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, obviously. They’re all pretty talented players,” he said. “But what I’ve asked of them is to challenge themselves every day, every practice, every game, every time they touch the ball.”
So far, that process is coming along well.
“The core group of the team, obviously, Isaac Garcia and Christian Caldera, are great. But we have a great team of players that are very familiar with each other, very supportive of each other,” Hester said. “Basically, for us, it’s about working on the fine points. Just focus on making things as good as you can make them every day. I’m just striving for them to improve every time they’re playing on the field.”
Aside from their games against St. Helena, Mendocino and Technology, the Wildcats also downed Laytonville 13-2 on Sept. 4, Mendocino 3-2 on Sept. 18, St. Vincent 12-2 on Sept. 23 and Anderson Valley 3-1 on Sept. 25. They’ll they hosted Roseland Collegiate on Monday and will also host Sonoma Academy on Wednesday before playing at Credo on Friday.
While he’s still learning the landscape of the league, Hester knows the coming weeks will be a challenge.
“I’ve heard that Credo is going to probably be one of the tougher teams, probably Roseland (Collegiate) is the other tougher team, and we’re playing both of them in the next couple weeks,” he said. “So that’s what our goal is – to play tough in the games that we need to and stay healthy.”