Sean Sutherland used the word “special” more than once to describe his team.
His Piner Prospectors boys soccer team is a lot of things: talented, young and fast. But Sutherland kept going back to the word special.
“There is something special about this team,” Sutherland said. “They work hard, they work well together, the chemistry is there. When it’s time to be serious, they are serious; when it’s time to have some fun they have some fun — it clicks. We just feel it.”
And unfortunately for the competition, the Prospectors are making everyone they face feel it, too.
Piner is 9-2-1 overall after notching some eye-catching wins against vaunted North Bay League programs and is now 6-1 in the Sonoma County League at the halfway mark, having only dropped a 2-1 decision to Healdsburg back in early December. They are looking to avenge that loss Saturday at home in a 2 p.m. rematch.
And a forewarning to all: Piner is young.
The Prospectors are led by leading scorer Elmer Pineda-Calderon and Adrian Ochoa, both central midfielders and both seniors. But on the 17-man roster, there are just four seniors. There are four juniors, eight sophomores and one freshman.
“They have known each other a long time,” Sutherland said. “They have this intensity and they have this chemistry.”
And they have been tested. Their preseason schedule was no joke, and the way the schedules fleshed out for league games, it was back-to-back games for long stretches for most teams. The Prospectors weathered that storm better than everyone else.
The Prospectors came out swinging. They scheduled three games with North Bay League teams and beat them all. They handed Maria Carrillo — a North Coast Section Division II team — a 4-0 loss on Dec. 2. And this is a Carrillo team that is on the rise, with a 5-3 record before Friday night’s game against Casa Grande.
Then they beat Division II Santa Rosa High 4-1 on Dec. 7.
On Dec. 18, the Prospectors beat Rancho Cotate 1-0. Rancho is a Division III team sitting in second place in the NBL with an 8-1 record heading into Friday night’s contest with Windsor.
That’s a lot of heavy hitting for a group dominated by underclassmen.
But perhaps that youth has showed a little bit. Just after handing Santa Rosa what could be argued as the Panthers’ worst loss of the season, the Prospectors faltered and were beaten 2-1 by Healdsburg.
“We were exhausted,” Sutherland said. “We were just hurt and tired. The boys put their heart and soul into the Rosa game, so having to play two days later that early in the season, we were just not as prepared as we thought we were.”
Discussions followed. How good did the Prospectors want to be?
“I told them, take that feeling they have — they were all very upset — and remember it,” Sutherland said. “We don’t want to do this again.”
“They understood we should have done better in that game. No one played up to their potential,” he said. “You have to be hungry.”
The Prospectors answered nine days later when they beat Rancho Cotate.
“That game was a battle,” Sutherland said. “They are very talented and they had a lot of opportunities.”
That win, coming off the heartbreaker against Healdsburg that put the Prospectors in an early 0-1 hole in league, was telling for Sutherland.
“After that game I was very straight. I said, ‘There is something special here and you just proved it,” he said. “My immediate response is, ‘You can’t be the team that beat Rosa and Rancho. We have to be more than this; we have to push ourselves and we have to keep winning.’”
They heard him. The Prospectors have run off five consecutive wins in 11 days.
“We went through a big test and we came out well,” he said. “We played good soccer.”
And they beat good teams. That streak included a 7-0 win against El Molino, a 1-0 win against Analy, a 3-1 win against Sonoma Valley (previously unbeaten in league), a 2-0 win against Elsie Allen and a 3-1 win against Petaluma.
It’s exhausting just typing it.
“The SCL is a lot more competitive than people give us credit for,” Sutherland said.
“The SCL is tough; it’s physical,” he said. “The scores — when we look at games, it doesn’t really matter because anything can happen in a game and you just never know. I think it’s a tough, fun league to play in.”
So the Prospectors know they have to buckle up for Round 2.
“Every team in this league is a challenge, but I think we are a great squad,” Pineda-Calderon said.
It’s behind the technical skills and scoring punch of Pineda-Calderon that the Prospectors have scored 35 goals in 12 games.
“He has done a lot of damage for us,” Sutherland said. “He is one of the most talented players I have ever had the privilege to coach.”
But Pineda-Calderon knows that for as tough as that run through the first half of the league schedule was, Round 2 will be even more difficult. Other teams know what they look like now.
That starts with a rematch at home against Healdsburg Saturday.
Reminder: It was the ’Hounds that put a tarnish on the Prospectors’ league record; it was the ’Hounds who brought the Prospectors back to earth after their other-wordly win against Santa Rosa.
Sutherland knows Healdsburg — despite sitting at 2-4-2 in league — will be ready.
“Herbert (Lemus) is a great coach,” he said. “I would never count him out.”
He told his team as much at practice Thursday.
“They are a dangerous team,” he said. “They can ruin seasons for people.”
But confidence is brewing at the Piner campus on Fulton Road. This is the best showing by a boys soccer team since perhaps 2003, before the re-alignment of the SCL and the NBL — when the fifth-seeded Prospectors won the North Coast Section 3A title.
Sutherland knows his team has a long way to go, but he likes how his players are playing right about now.
“I think we are on the road to something big,” he said.
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.