Even in defeat, the South High girls soccer team continues to break new ground. Several Rebels had tears in their eyes Friday night as they trudged back to their sideline after losing 2-0 to visiting Ridgeview, further evidence that winning isn't just a new thing for this program -- it's expected.
"With the hard work they've put in, their attitude is that they should be winning games," South coach Gina Flores said. "It's fantastic to see how much they care."
South's loss drops the Rebels to 13-8-4 overall and 6-1 in the South Yosemite League. However, all that means is: (a) With a win or a tie next week against Mira Monte, South can clinch its first league title in school history, according to Central Section historian Bob Barnett; and (b), no matter how they finish, these Rebels have made massive strides since 2007-10, when they were 7-67-19 overall and 1-37-4 in league play.
"The biggest problem was that we were so used to losing that it became OK," Flores said. "Three years ago, we had (seven) freshmen on the varsity that are seniors now, and we told them this was their chance.
"We've done it with baby steps."
Those seven pioneers -- Abi Gors, Gianna Macias, Patricia Martin, Samantha Carbajal, Daniell Davis, Katia Navarro and Rebecca Lara — went 0-12 in the Southwest Yosemite League as freshmen. Their sophomore season, they were 2-14-8 but won a league game for the first time in four years and were generally competitive, as evidenced by the eight ties.
“That sophomore year, you started seeing some change,” Flores said. “They started to truly believe instead of just saying, ‘Oh, I think we could do well, but I don’t know.’”
Last year, South went 13-11-4 overall and 4-4 in the SYL. They had their first winning record and won their first playoff game in more than a decade. This year, with 15 seniors among 20 players on the roster, the Rebels have become front-runners.
“My freshman year, I was really scared and doubtful of what I could do,” said Carbajal, whose 11 goals rank second on the team. “It came gradually. We realized during practices last year that we could handle this.”
Flores, who won a Central Section championship at Clovis High before playing at Cal State Bakersfield and coaching at Garces, has been at South for nine years, and she’s been waiting for this.
“It was a huge change for me, coming from Clovis and Garces,” Flores said. “Those are places that have always been successful, and coming here, that was the biggest change. It was difficult.”
But Flores has stuck it out through thick and (mostly) thin, knowing she couldn’t quit if her players never did.
“It’s just about seeing how hard the girls work,” she said. “That’s what I love the most, and that’s what kept me here. These girls just don’t know how to give up.”
That’s in the face of many obstacles, including skepticism from their own school.
“The results are satisfying just to prove people wrong,” said Navarro, who has served as team captain for three years. “We still get questioned at school whether the score in the newspaper was correct, like people don’t believe we actually won. It’s fun in a way.”
On Friday, Ridgeview (13-6-1, 5-2 SYL) kept its league-title hopes alive on the strength of two early goals from Victoria Pyle. South pressured consistently in the second half but couldn’t score despite a few golden opportunities.
Still, it’s just one loss, and obstacles don’t seem to bother this team. In the preseason, Alicia Gamino, the team’s leading scorer a year ago, blew out her knee and is lost for the season. No matter; junior Crystal Espinoza has scored 12 goals and made seven assists, Navarro has seven of each and Carbajal moved to forward and scored at least once in each league game before Friday.
“I usually don’t play forward, but it doesn’t matter,” Carbajal said. “I felt like I had to step up. It’s more motivation than anything.”
Flores, in fact, makes a point of teaching every player how to play every position (on Friday, Navarro played the first half at goalkeeper), taking advantage of their athleticism and creating versatility to counteract the fact that most of the Rebels haven’t played soccer before high school.
“Most of them are very athletic and can jump in anywhere and do the job,” Flores said. “They’ve really all put in a lot of work.”
After the Mira Monte game next Friday, South will move into the Division IV section playoffs.
If Friday night’s tears mean anything, it’s that a league championship and a deep postseason run is becoming less of a dream and more of an expectation. And that suits these Rebels just fine.
“I don’t have the words to describe how proud it makes me feel,” Navarro said. “South is a school that many, many people underestimate. We put in the work to change that, and so we expect this.”