By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Long one of the Bay Area’s most competitive prep boys’ soccer leagues, the North Bay League is even tougher this season.
How difficult? Consider that two-time defending North Coast Section champion Montgomery is among the struggling squads.
With the addition of perennial playoff contender Windsor and an experienced Casa Grande team, the NBL should again send tested title contenders into the section playoffs.
“There are so many talented players and well-coached teams. Each year it seems to get more difficult,” said Maria Carrillo coach Mike Mastin.
North Bay League teams have won seven of the past nine large-school section titles through last season. In the past two playoffs, five of the semifinalists came from the NBL.
Maria Carrillo again is a league favorite, loaded with club players and returning more than a handful of starters. Rancho Cotate and Casa Grande also have deep, skilled squads. Windsor is making another strong playoff bid.
Cardinal Newman leads the league’s second half. Montgomery and Ukiah are young. Santa Rosa has struggled to win.
“It’s been a long season so far. But we’re working hard. Don’t rule us out,” said Montgomery coach Jon Schwan. “It’s going to be competitive.”
What makes Maria Carrillo a favorite of the league’s coaches is talent and numbers.
“I think the strength of this team so far this year is the depth we have off the bench,” Mastin said.
Returning All-Empire defender David Sheppard leads six starters back for the Pumas, including speedy scorer Dontae Garcia and athletic goalkeeper James Pierpont.
“They’re pretty loaded. Maria Carrillo should have a big target on their back,” said Cardinal Newman coach Alan Ramos.
Still, the Pumas will be pushed to stay on top.
Rancho Cotate could be a top challenger. The fast, offensive-minded Cougars will likely improve as they incorporate newcomers into a lineup led by returning All-Empire midfielder Michael Tagaffola and standouts Roy Boateng and Jonathan Bobadilla.
“You cannot rule out any team in the NBL. With the addition of Casa and Windsor, it is even stronger,” said Rancho Cotate coach Eamon Kelly.
Continuing a theme of the league’s top teams, Casa Grande looks to seven returners as the Gauchos aim to reach the section playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
“We’re off to a really good start. We just have to keep it going,” said Casa Grande coach Lee Summerscales.
“I like our chances of making the playoffs if we stay fit and healthy.”
Experienced across the field, Casa Grande is led by Noah Wilson on top, workhorse midfielder Paco Villegas, and physical centerback Nick Klimenko.
Windsor returns All-Empire defender Andres Flores to a team that always plays well at home.
Aiming for a sixth consecutive section playoff appearance, Windsor is talented and could be a dark horse. If the NBL gets four teams in, the Jaguars could contend for a playoff bid.
Another familiar section playoff participant is Cardinal Newman. This season’s Cardinals work hard and play well together.
“We have some great leadership. That makes a big difference,” Ramos said.
Leading scorer James Del Curto is big and athletic. A club soccer goalkeeper, Del Curto and midfielder Simon Bell pressure opponents and keep the Cardinals organized.
Injuries have stymied Montgomery with the Vikings sidelining a third of their roster for some games.
Where the Vikings must improve is scoring to complement determined defensive efforts.
Montgomery is building around returning starters Julio Chavez, who anchors the back line, and Jamie Iroz in the midfield.
“We’re getting better every game,” Schwan said.
Also young, Ukiah returns only one starter from a year ago. Marco Nunez is valuable as a tough defensive midfielder who helps hold the Wildcats together.
Skilled and coachable, Ukiah needs to improve ball movement and gain confidence against a tough slate of league competition.
“I know we can do something this year. We’re focused on next year and better results,” said Ukiah coach Rogelio Alvarado.
Closing out games has been the challenge for a Santa Rosa team that returns a handful of starters from last season.
Team play is a Santa Rosa strength.
Leading the attack at forward is Alfredo Salazar with midfielder Gerardo Suarez helping the Panthers string together possessions.
“We’ve been in every game. We’re just not getting the results we need,” said Santa Rosa coach Antonio Garcia. “It’s tough to win in the NBL.”
You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or email@example.com.