Benefield: Roseland University Prep boys soccer team making jump to winter

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Roseland University Prep wants a piece of the action.

Following first the North Bay League, then the Sonoma County League, and then independent moves like the Sonoma Academy girls’ team, the RUP boys’ soccer team is riding the wave of its recent success and throwing their hat into the ring for winter soccer. They will compete in the North Bay League-Redwood Division in the upcoming season.

It’s a much deeper pool of competition, it presents a logistical challenge for the Knights’ facilities and it may mean a good deal more losses than the program has grown used to in recent years.

And coach Tino Fonzeca can’t wait.

“The move, it’s always been in the back of my mind,” he said. “It’s what I wanted to do when I first got here eight years ago.”

“The competition is better,” he said. “It will only make our program better.”

And the RUP program has been plenty good of late.

After finishing second in North Central II League in 2014 and again in 2015, the Knights won the league pennant in 2016. And last season, they ran the table in league play before making a head-turning run through the North Coast Section Div. 1 playoffs.

The Knights were the No. 4 seed and dispatched the No. 13 seed, the No. 5 seed, and the No. 1 seed before falling — in overtime — 2-1 to the No. 7 seed in the championship game.

And it still burns.

“I think about it every day,” Fonzeca said. “It’s tough. We were up. We were up 1-0 with 10 minutes to go. We let it get away. I felt like it would have been a perfect way to move to winter.”

Senior goalkeeper Alan Aquieta agreed.

“I think it’s motivation for us,” he said. “We really wanted it that year and this year it’s just going to motivate us even more to win.”

Still, Fonzeca knows full well that wins will be harder to come by in the winter. The Knights will no longer be playing St. Vincent or Tech, who they dispatched 6-0 and 7-0 last season. The schedule now includes the likes of much bigger schools like Piner, Maria Carrillo and Cardinal Newman.

But Fonzeca said the conversations prior to the move were based in reality with a little bit of aspiration sprinkled in.

“The thing that kept coming up is that if we jump over, we might be losing some soccer games,” he said.

And the guys at the end of the bench who used to get playing time when the game was out of reach? They might be playing a lot less in the winter.

But Fonzeca said this team and the trajectory of the program deserved a chance to test their mettle against a new set of teams.

And this season certainly is not about rebuilding. The Knights return many of the pieces that made them so potent last year, namely their two leading scorers, junior Brian Cruz and senior Jose Pineda. The Knights scored 71 goals in 21 games last season.

And the defense that allowed .80 goals per game with Arquieta in goal will look disappointingly familiar to foes. That defense posted an eye-popping 11 shutouts last fall.

“He’s a phenomenal goalie,” Fonzeca said. “He will keep us in a lot of games with the quality of these other teams.”

The move also provided some logistical challenges that are not unlike what other teams have faced: the prospect of soggy, natural grass fields and a field with no lights in the dark days of winter. RUP secured the help of Sonoma Academy, a school that knows well the challenges of jumping ship on fall soccer relatively solo.

The Sonoma Academy girls, coached by SA athletic director Chris Ziemer, left the NCLII and joined the SCL last season and, with the demise of that league this year, will play the stoutest competition around: the North Bay League-Oak Division.

“I picked Chris’s brain,” Fonzeca said about the ins and outs of going solo and about scheduling and facilities.

“It’s going to be interesting to say the least,” Fonzeca said.

Sonoma Academy has offered it’s all-weather field for RUP home games and all preseason contests will be on the road, Fonzeca said.

All of those things can become distractions, but Fonzeca said the move has been something that has been talked about over time. He thinks his squad will be ready.

Arquieta said the squad will work on focusing not on the new teams lining up on the other side of the field, but on what the Knights are doing. A seasonal change will not alter the Knights’ vision of what they can be.

“It’s not that we are scared of other teams,” he said. “We are just going to do our job and go on the pitch and do what we do best.”

Fonzeca said that in the end, this move into the teeth of tougher competition will be good for not only this team, but future RUP squads. But he knows the trials that await.

“It’s not necessarily about wins and losses,” he said. “We’ll see. If we start 0-5, we might be in trouble. I think they understand the challenge.”

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

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