The Calistoga High boys soccer program has done nothing but churn out double-digit win seasons since Danny Almanza took over as head coach in 2016.
Coming into the 2018 season, Almanza owns a career coaching record of 32-7-4 and only seems to be getting started.
The Wildcats have already kicked off their 2018 campaign and have championship aspirations in mind. That goal shouldn’t be that difficult to reach with the talent that they possess this year. But the season is young and anything can happen.
Just know that Calistoga could make some noise this year.
“It’s like we always say, ‘we’re going to take it game by game.’ But the players know, the coaching staff knows, that’s always one of our goals – to finish as close to the top in league,” Almanza said following his team’s 7-1 season-opening win over St. Helena on Aug. 29. “That won’t be an exception this year, especially with a group as exciting as this one.”
Coming off Wednesday’s 6-2 win at St. Vincent de Paul, Calistoga (3-0) will open North Central League II play Friday at home against Tomales at Logvy Community Park. The Wildcats’ first win came over the Saints, while their second was a 3-2 win over College Prep-Oakland.
The third year in a coach’s tenure is usually an intriguing one. By this point, they’ve had time to implement their style and develop a culture that they hope permeates throughout a program. Almanza is no exception and is starting to see his investments pay off.
“This team the last couple years has been coming together more as a unit, which was something that a couple years ago we started working on,” Almanza said. “So we’re seeing it now – two, three years later. We should have a really good mix this year.”
The Wildcats went 13-3-2 overall last year, and 10-1-1 in league, good enough to finish second in the NCL II for the second year in a row. Their season ended in the second round of the CIF North Coast Section Division 2 playoffs with a 2-0 loss to eventual section runner-up Drew-San Francisco.
That team only had three seniors on it and featured a majority of underclassmen. A year later, many of those Wildcats are playing more confidently with a season of varsity ball under their belts.
But even against Drew in the playoffs last year, a game in which many of the underclassmen played significant roles, the freshmen and sophomores impressed Almanza, giving him heightened optimism coming into this season.
Ten of the Wildcats’ 18 players are upperclassmen, which also gives Calistoga an edge in leadership.
“It’s good that we have the older guys, because they step in as leaders on the field and coach or help the young guys through their experience,” Almanza said. “We’ve been in the top two in league and we’ve always made playoffs, so a lot of our guys have experience playing against our toughest opponents in league, and then also those games in the playoffs.”
One of those players is senior Abad Cuenca, who had a monster junior season for the Wildcats. Cuenca scored 38 goals and dished out 12 assists in just 17 games. Almanza estimated he might have had around 45 had the October wildfires not forced four of their games to be canceled last season.
Cuenca will lead the head of the attack for Calistoga. With a strong veteran presence and a handful of talented sophomores and freshmen roaming the pitch, Almanza has more weapons than he knows what to do with.
That’s a good problem to have when you’re competing in a tough league that only got stronger over the offseason. Roseland Collegiate Prep joins the NCL II this year after going 11-3-3 last season en route to the NCS Division 3 title. Along with perennial soccer powerhouse Roseland University Prep, which won the league title, as well as Anderson Valley and Tomales, NCL II play was no cakewalk for the Wildcats last year.
Calistoga lost 3-2 at Roseland University Prep, tied Anderson Valley, 1-1, and beat Tomales, 1-0. With the inclusion of Roseland Collegiate Prep, the NCL II is only getting more challenging.
“It should be a good season,” said Almanza. “We have a lot to look forward to this year. So, we’ll see.”