By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Teams are aiming higher as the Sonoma County League girls soccer campaign opens.
Returning section playoff teams Analy and Petaluma and a strong Sonoma Valley squad are early favorites. Still, coaches expect the league will be very competitive with Healdsburg and El Molino fielding experienced teams and Piner gaining confidence.
“I really think the league is up for grabs this year. There’s so much talent out there in this league,” said Piner coach Barry Comerford.
The departure of perennial powers Casa Grande and Windsor to the North Bay League gives smaller SCL schools renewed hope of reaching the North Coast Section playoffs.
“You’ve got a shot. The smaller teams could get considered,” said El Molino coach Thomas Acuna. “The league realignment makes it more competitive. The realignment has given a renewed optimism for teams that have historically been at the bottom of the leagues. ”
Analy was a popular pick to lead the league. But the Tigers must overcome injuries to returning all-league players Brooklyn Varnadore and Rachel Hargrave. Colette Zepponi and Riley Ping Medvigy are back after all-league seasons.
“We’ll be young and much will depend on how quickly we can gel,” said Analy coach Joseph Heil. “We’ll have to figure out where we will get goals, given the loss of SCL leading scorer Varnadore to injury.”
Sturdy senior-led defense and skilled scorers make Petaluma a difficult match up. The Trojans work hard and are skilled at keeping the ball.
Anchoring the back line are Jenny Saxton and Sophie Payne. McKenzie Maher, Marissa Bordessa and Bella Santia combine to provide Petaluma’s prime scoring threats.
“I’m very excited to be working with this group of girls. We have a young and enthusiastic team,” said Petaluma coach Chris Daly.
A combination of talented newcomers and returning starters also make Sonoma Valley a league title contender and section playoff hopeful.
“Although we have a very young team with only four returning seniors, we will be very competitive,” said Sonoma Valley coach Julio Leon.
Healdsburg and El Molino are improved, winning more and playing tighter matches. If either can post winning records, a section playoff berth could follow.
“We’ve set our sights on the playoffs. We can get there if we play hard enough and just change a few things,” said Healdsburg coach Dave Wilson.
Powering the Greyhounds are Heather Welch up front and Abbie King in the midfield. Defenders Kylie Dale, Ellie Sweeney, HelenAnn Haun and Jordan Whitemore front Sarah Vargas, an anchor at goalkeeper.
“We don’t have any real weaknesses,” Wilson said.
With seven returning starters, El Molino is stronger than recent Lions teams.
“We’ve got a much better team. We’re a year more experienced. We’re more skilled,” Acuna said.
Scoring should be El Molino’s strength. Valerie LaForge and Isy Ruiz are back up front. Megan Warren helps control play on both ends of the field.
Returning at goalkeeper is Jocelyn Santibanez, a very athletic player who keeps El Molino in games.
“Our veterans and new players have gelled into a very close-knit group,” Acuna said. “They know it is a long road ahead, but if they stay together all things are possible.”
A winning record could be difficult for Piner. Staying close in contests has bolstered the Prospectors’ hopes.
“They can’t give up. That’s what I want,” Comerford said.
Leading the Piner effort is Allison Lopez in the midfield, Karla Lopez and Juana Nunez on defense, and Margaret Feeney, a sharp passer.
“They’re solid. If I can keep them healthy and focused, I think we’ll be OK,” Comerford said.
Also joining the SCL with Piner is Elsie Allen. But the Lobos are only playing junior varsity girls soccer this season.
You can reach Staff Writer
Michael Coit at 521-5470 or email@example.com.