Benefield: Roseland University Prep girls soccer squad setting sights high

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After Tino Fonzeca coached his Roseland University Prep boys soccer team to such success that the squad jumped to the more competitive winter season last year, his fall schedule was suddenly wide open. So he took over the girls soccer program.

But in his inaugural season last fall, Fonzeca, being new, was unsure how hard to push or where to set his expectations for the Knights. The year prior, they had finished with a solid 12-5-3 overall record and went 10-3-3 to finish fourth in the final season of the North Central League II configuration. He knew he had players and wanted to drive the team hard but not drive them away.

“Last year it was a little bit weird,” he said. “I just didn’t want anyone to quit.”

Balancing a need to build the program and an instinct to push for results, the Knights played to a 11-3-4 overall record and a 6-1-1 league record — which was good enough for second in the North Central League III and a spot in the North Coast Section Division 1 tournament, where they were bounced in the first round.

That’s all well and good, but this year their collective aim is higher. Looking at his roster this season and the number of returning players he has at his disposal, Fonzeca isn’t biting his tongue anymore.

“This year, I have made it known — it’s league championship and a run in the playoffs,” he said.

They are off to a heck of a start.

The Knights are 8-0. Granted, that record includes two forfeits — to Anderson Valley and Mendocino — but it also includes road wins over perennially tough teams like Middletown and St. Helena.

Those two wins, right out of the gate, got the Knights believing.

“Last year we lost against them and they were our first game,” senior midfielder Kensy Mendoza said of the Middletown Mustangs. “We went up there (this year) with the mentality of never giving up … we beat someone we didn’t beat last year, so it showed we improved.”

And their opener, a 2-1 win against St. Helena in broiling August heat? That one showed Fonzeca something about his squad.

“Girls were just dying out there,” he said. “But we put away two late. … We had every reason to pack it in. It was so hot. At one time, we were playing with 10 girls. We had girls hurt, one had a bloody nose, it was too hot for some girls. We weren’t prepared for it.”

The Knights perhaps weren’t prepared for it, but they answered the call.

“We got tested early and we snuck away with some wins,” Fonzeca said. “Girls are clicking and it’s getting easier.”

Junior striker Stephanie Guzman agreed.

“Everything is falling into place,” she said.

The Knights are beating teams this year that they were only able to pull out a draw with last year — Cloverdale, St. Helena, Credo. Every game is feeding their confidence.

Guzman has a team-leading 13 goals on the season. Freshman striker Jackie Pacheco has nine.

But don’t mistake confidence for conceit. The Knights know their road will have speed bumps.

First and foremost is, perhaps, history. Roseland University Prep girls soccer has never won a league banner.

But the Knights are using that to their advantage. They talk often of making history.

“When we talk about winning the banner, it’s a goal we have set up,” Guzman said.

Last year, the Knights came about as close as a team could but came up short against a talented Tech High team that went on to win the NCS Division 3 title.

The Knights were beaten badly by Tech in their first meeting last season, losing 4-0. But two weeks later, they came up with a 1-1 tie.

“Last year we came up a little short, but we were so close,” Mendoza said.

So it makes sense that when asked what games will be biggest this season, Tech is the first name uttered.

“We play them Oct. 11,” Mendoza said.

“I would have to say Tech,” Guzman said.

“We have to go through Tech because they are the champions,” Fonzeca said. “They are still league champions from last year and they are league champions until they are not.”

Fonzeca said this team’s ability to both win an historic first league title and make a run deeper than round one in the NCS tournament will have everything to do with consistency and intensity.

Fonzeca promotes focus — focus on both process and outcome — in both practice and games. When conditioning gets tough, when drills start to burn, Fonzeca has no problem reminding his team of their collective goals. And if that means reminding them of teams that have bettered them in the past, so be it.

“I tell them, ‘Remember Arcata when we are running,” he said.

Arcata High is, of course, the team that has bounced the Knights from the NCS postseason tournament two years running. So Tech may be the hurdle the Knights have to clear to secure their first league banner in girls soccer, but the road to a section title will likely travel north.

“We have to get through those teams up north. They are going to be a tough out — Eureka, Fortuna, Arcata,” Fonzeca said. “Then, of course, Middletown and St. Helena gave us a run.

“We are hoping to use last year’s loss in the NCS playoffs as ‘Look, OK, this is what to expect in playoffs, this is how we should practice,’” he said.

Fonzeca is no longer holding back on expectations or demands. He’s no longer worried players will quit. They are all in and he’ll keep driving.

“Intensity and work rate on the field, that is what is going to get us to the top. And not making mistakes,” he said.

Like his players, Fonzeca knows when the next test in the Knights’ journey comes soon. The Knights head to Rohnert Park to play the reigning league champ Tech Titans in less than two weeks.

“Come Oct. 11, we’ll see if the intensity is there,” he said.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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