The American Canyon High girls soccer program has had Napa County Players of the Year the last four seasons, the most in a row since Napa High had five straight from 2007 to 2011.
A couple of standouts could have a chance to keep the Wolves’ streak going – such as fourth-year varsity player Alexus Jackson or sophomore Cyrene Paez, who has the team’s only goal through three games so far.
Having another Player of the Year isn’t the goal for American Canyon head coach Travis Behn, though, even though the honor has come at the end of a playoff run each of the last three seasons.
Behn doesn’t want the Wolves to focus on getting the ball to any one or two players. Opponents pick up on that, as he felt host Vallejo did with center midfielder Jackson last Friday. The Redhawks – probably the Wolves’ main rival before American Canyon left the Solano County Athletic Conference this year for the new Vine Valley Athletic League – double- and triple-teamed the co-captain and she was injured midway through the first half, sidelined for the night, and the Wolves lost 3-1.
“Everything had to go through Julia (Cummings) when she was here,” Behn said of the All-County Player of the Year in 2015-16 and 16-17, who played her second season for Cal State Stanislaus this fall. “That was the way the other girls felt. That’s why she got double and triple teams. Everybody passed the ball to her. Some games when she was out we did better because they would find other people to pass to and the other team couldn’t zero in on one player.
“I’m hoping that doesn’t happen this year, everybody giving the ball to Alexus. I want them to look at other options, because going to Alexus first is easy to defend.”
Looking at last year’s statistics, the Wolves’ top returning scorer is actually senior midfielder-forward Isabelle Ramos, who had four goals. Also back are junior midfielder-forward Saleena Bains and striker-defender and co-captain Christin Locke, who each had two goals last season.
Rounding out the seniors are defenders Camill Bagta and Elva Cortez, a co-captain; midfielder-defenders Nicole Link, Natalie Rangel and Tamarah Childs; and goalkeeper-midfielder Cameron Causey, who had to sit out last season because of concussion protocol.
The other juniors are defender and co-captain Korie Harvey, midfielder-forward Saleena Bains, goalkeeper-defender Greta Fast and goalkeeper-midfielder striker-defender Kaitlyn Mannor.
The sophomores, along with defender-midfielder Paez, are defender Karina Esqueda and midfielder-defender Tanya Rivas.
“Alexus took a back seat in the past because we had strong leaders, and I’m trying to see if she’ll take that step forward this season,” Behn said. “But I also have leaders in Christen and Corey, who were the leaders of the JV team and are juniors now.”
The Wolves were 11-10-3 overall and second in the SCAC last season, with four nonleague wins – something that would help them make the CIF North Coast Section playoffs this season. They will play at least three games at the River City Raider Cup in Sacramento this weekend, four if they advance to the medal round, in their last tune-ups before opening VVAL play at Justin-Siena in a week.
“All the schools we’re playing this weekend are decent teams, too, especially Inderkum,” Behn said.
If they don’t even up their record this week, they will need a .500 league or overall record to make the playoffs.
The Wolves were supposed to open the season against Armijo and Wood, but the games were canceled due to wildfire smoke from Butte County. Jackson would have had to miss them anyway because her club season hadn’t ended yet.
American Canyon’s other games were lopsided losses, 6-0 at Benicia last Thursday and 7-0 to visiting California-San Ramon on Monday – programs that combined for three playoff wins last year. They were worth playing this year, Behn felt, because they might be playoff opponents down the road.
“I told the girls up front, ‘We need to be tested by playoff teams so that if we have a chance to get to the playoffs, we’re not star-struck and one-and-done” said Behn, whose program is 0-3 all-time in the postseason. “The goal is to get to the playoffs and if we get to the playoffs, I want to win some games.”
The Wolves lost to Woodland 3-0 in their season opener last year, and then fell to fourth-seeded Woodland 5-1 in their Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoff opener. Woodland would go 7-0 in the postseason, winning section Div. III and NorCal Div. II titles.
“If you’re gonna lose, lose to the champion, right?” Behn said. “When we faced them in the playoffs, we had no answer, but at least we had a shot at them before that. If you’ve played a (playoff opponent) before, you see what worked and what didn’t the first time.
“I’d say half the girls on the California team will be playing soccer in college, and I’ve probably got one, so getting beaten is nothing to be ashamed of. We’re going to get a low seed if we make the playoffs because of the way our preseason has started, but our heads aren’t down – the captains won’t let that happen.”
In his third year at the girls’ helm after trading places with varsity boys coach Gabriel Zepeda before the 2015-16 season, Behn is learning how to be a manager as well as coach.
“The team’s GPA is pretty high, so these girls are going to go to college whether it’s to play soccer or not. They also do choir and band and play other sports, so we’re trying to see what works for everybody,” he said. “I’ve found that the girls I coach have interests other than soccer and if I can be more flexible with their interests, I get more effort out of them. I ask them to tell me the truth about what’s going on and then we work around it because they’re students first.”
He said he was missing seven starters for the Vallejo game because they were working at the city’s Christmas tree lighting event on Friday, so he brought a couple of players up from the junior varsity. Paez, who scored on a free kick, is normally a midfielder but was playing defender that night because Bagta sustained a concussion on the first day of practice.
“We had no subs, but I thought these girls who don’t get a lot of minutes played strong the whole game,” the coach said.
Behn is excited about finally being in the same league as Napa, Vintage, Justin-Siena and Petaluma, after playing them in preseason matches for years. Through Monday, Petaluma was the only VVAL team with a win, while Vintage had two ties.
“We’ll see them all twice now, so there’s definitely going to be something on the line,” he said.
He’s also excited to have his first-ever freshman-sophomore team – coached by Billy Biondini, father of the ACHS tennis and football standout with the same name – along with the JV team coached once again by his daughter, Alana Behn.
“I wanted the freshman-sophomore team because, yes, those girls are not soccer rats, but they enjoy the game,” he said. “If I can get them to work on their craft on their own so they can get pulled up to the JV team then I win. If I cut them and keep them from getting better, I have less to choose from next year.”
Behn isn’t sure if he’ll start Fast, Mannor or Causey in goal on a regular basis yet, especially since Causey has had to play in the field. Amadeo Maldonado coaches them, as well as six other goalkeepers at the lower levels.
“I think this team is better at ball handling than last year’s team. We’re trying some different setups to see what’s going to work,” Behn said. “We’re trying to get it dialed in quickly, because after the tournament it’s all real. We’ve had a rough start, but I think we’re going to right the ship.”