Benefield: Roseland University Prep boys soccer squad has eyes on NCS prize

RUP coach Tino Fonzeca, center. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)


Even for the most glass-half-full person, 0-2 is not an auspicious start. Especially for the defending North Central League II champions.

But Roseland University Prep boys soccer coach Tino Fonzeca promises he wasn’t worried when his Knights started the season winless in their first two outings. After all, the schedule he put together was not for the faint of heart.

The Knights traveled to San Francisco to face perennial power Stuart Hall in the season opener. They lost 1-0. In game two, he had them play North Coast Section Division 1 defending champion Fortuna. They lost 4-2.

For a team with aspirations of bringing home an NCS championship, that’s a pretty big hole to climb out of. But the Knights packed their cleats and their hiking boots this season and climb they did.

“They just started challenging each other with, ‘Look, man, we are better than this,’” Fonzeca said. “From that we grew little by little.”

If you call not dropping a game since Aug. 25 growing little by little, go ahead. But that looks to me like growing a lot by a lot. The Knights haven’t lost or tied a game in 15 consecutive contests, including a midseason, nonleague game against last year’s Division 1 top seed Urban in San Francisco, no less. And along the way, they brought home their second consecutive NCL II league champions’ banner.

But after watching his boys get off to a shaky start, it was that game against Urban that Fonzeca had marked as a true test for his team.

“That was a game we kind of circled on the calendar,” he said.

It didn’t start well.

Urban went up 1-0 early. Soccer has no timeouts, no stoppage of play in which a coach can pull his players aside and give advice, chew them out or simply tell them to calm down. The Knights would have to figure this one out on their own.

“At first it got to us,” sophomore Brian Cruz said about the early deficit. “But we supported each other and said to keep our heads up, there was still a lot of time left.”

The Knights got the equalizer just before halftime, made some adjustments at the break and left San Francisco with a 2-1 win and tons more confidence.

“That was a big win for us,” Fonzeca said.

That was the game, Fonzeca said, that confirmed what he had long believed about his squad — they had the goods to win the section title.

It was big not only because Urban is a stacked team, but because the Knights gave up an early lead and fought back. It’s the kind of game experience that can help a team in the playoffs.

Yet even with that win, Urban was given a higher seed in the Division 1 tournament that starts Wednesday. Fortuna is ranked No. 1, Urban No. 2, Stuart Hall No. 3 and RUP is No. 4.

Even with a somewhat disappointing seed, Fonzeca said those two early losses might pay dividends in the end.

“We showed some resilience and fought back,” he said. “We could have easily pointed fingers and packed it in for the season. We didn’t.”

So maybe the No. 4 seed will be the same kind of hurdle the Knights have already proven they can overcome. They are also proving to be a team that is coming together at the right time.

The Knights say they have always had all the pieces, but it was a matter of time they figured out how they fit together. They start four freshmen. Their leading scorer, Brian Cruz, is a sophomore. The second-leading scorer, Jose Pineda, is a junior. Early in the season they had guys making only parts of practices because they had club training to get to.

It was tough to find a rhythm. These guys just needed a little get-to-know-you time.

“In my head, I was just like, ‘We don’t have the chemistry yet,’” said senior defender and co-captain Cesar Pulido. “When we started, we didn’t have what we needed.”

They do now.

The defense that allowed Fortuna to score four times back in August has since figured things out and has allowed opponents to score an average of less than one goal per game. That is no small feat considering the Knights’ two starting outside defenders are freshmen.

“We were just building the chemistry with our new guys,” said goalkeeper Alan Arquieta. “It was more getting to know each other, the style of play and getting used to each other.”

It’s working. The Knights have posted eight shutouts. They have scored 65 goals and allowed just 15. It’s now safe to talk openly about winning it all.

Yes, that No. 4 seed could be interpreted as a slight. After all, RUP beat the No. 3 seed Urban on the road less than a month ago. But that slight could also serve as motivation — something similar to their 0-2 start.

It’s certainly not unheard of. Fortuna won the Division 1 crown last year as the fourth seed after topping No. 2 seed Lick-Wilmerding in the final.

“We should be the last team playing,” Pulido said. “Our next goal is to win NCS. Hopefully we can make a good run in the next two weeks.”

If there is one thing the Knights have learned about themselves this season, it’s that they are capable of making a run.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”