Seventy-five boys turned out to play for the Rancho Cotate soccer team this season.
That’s what going undefeated in league and winning the North Bay League title will do for you.
And although they lost several key players from last year, the Cougars are feeling pretty good about their chances in this new, winter soccer season.
The Cougars and other NBL teams are preparing for their first winter season after switching from fall last year. The Sonoma County League will join them next year after voting to move after finishing their final fall season this year.
“We are going to miss the players who left,” said coach Eamon Kelly. “They were top-notch players.”
Specifically, the loss of All-League first-teamer Sergio Bobadilla as the defensive leader and midfielder Allan Gomez created a hole that has proven tricky to fill.
But at the other end of the field, two young standouts on last year’s team have returned, bringing with them scoring abilities but also continuity as much of the team around them changes.
Enrike “Kiki” Gomez, a junior, and sophomore Adrian “Pica” Fontanelli will play forward and have built a solid comfort level with each other through club soccer and last year’s 17-1-3 run with the Cougars.
Gomez led the team last year, so his role hasn’t changed, Kelly said, as much as it has matured.
“He’s our emotional leader,” he said Tuesday in practice.
As a freshman last year, Fontanelli impressed Kelly from the start.
Typically, a young player will get 10 minutes a game in the first two or three games to show the coach what he can do.
“By the third game, he was an every-minute player,” Kelly said of Fontanelli, who was named to the All-League second-team last year.
Losing Bobadilla behind them, though, requires some rebuilding of the defense.
“He was so strong, he just ran the defense,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to sort out more of a team defense this year.”
Kevin Bobadilla, Levi Sanchez, Jose Alvarez and Jose Amador — who was pulled into defense from playing winger last year — will make up the defensive corps in front of returning senior goalkeeper Cristian Mendoza-Gopar.
To sort out who fit in where, Kelly scheduled the team to play in an East Bay preseason tournament last month.
The Cougars came away 3-2-2, with a couple of those that could have been in the win column, he said. They played to a 2-2 tie against a Pittsburg team that placed second in Division 1 last year, compared with Rancho’s smaller Division 2.
“The team was a little disappointed in the tournament,” Kelly said. “Against Pittsburg, we felt we should have had it, but we gave up those two goals. Their expectations are high after last year.”
The Cougars expect strong challenges from Santa Rosa, Casa Grande and Montgomery. League play begins Jan. 4, when Rancho Cotate will host Cardinal Newman.
Gomez acknowledges a target may be on the Cougars’ backs for the league title, but he said last year was no fluke.
“It’s starting to come together,” he said. “We definitely have the talent to do what we did last season.”