Girls soccer: Year of the super sophs

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

MOVE TO MID: After leading the team in scoring as a freshman forward last year, Analy’s Sami Zepponi was asked by her coach to switch to midfield this season. (Photo by Alvin Jornada, for The Press Democrat)

MOVE TO MID: After leading the team in scoring as a freshman forward last year, Analy’s Sami Zepponi was asked by her coach to switch to midfield this season. (Photo by Alvin Jornada, for The Press Democrat)

As Sonoma County’s soccer teams bear down on the North Coast Section playoffs, it’s quite possible that the three best girls teams in the area belong to Maria Carrillo, Montgomery and Analy. And those three squads have very similar aces hiding up their sleeves: precocious sophomores who are skillful beyond their years.

Montgomery’s Taylor Ziemer is one of the top scorers in the North Bay League from her center-mid position. Carrillo’s Madison Gonzalez is a speed demon with a knack for game-changing goals. Analy’s Sami Zepponi is the Tigers’ most versatile weapon after switching positions this year.

Not that they need introductions to one another. The three girls are teammates with the Santa Rosa United U15 Girls Freeze, a club team coached by Ziemer’s mom, Trisha.

“I’ve played with Maddy since I was 9, and with Taylor since I was 12,” Zepponi said.

GOOD GENES: Montgomery’s Taylor Ziemer is a strong player and very sound technically — not a surprise when you consider her family tree. (Photo by Conner Jay, The Press Democrat)

GOOD GENES: Montgomery’s Taylor Ziemer is a strong player and very sound technically — not a surprise when you consider her family tree. (Photo by Conner Jay, The Press Democrat)

They are not the only able sophomores in the Redwood Empire. The powerful Maria Carrillo team has eight sophomores on the roster, including stellar goalkeeper Claire Howard. Ziemer has a teammate, Taylor Fager, who has emerged as an excellent defender. Sonoma Academy has a gifted midfielder in Chloe Colbert, and Cardinal Newman boasts a pair of strong defenders in Amara Ortiz and Megan Moore.

But don’t sleep on the girls with the Zs in their names — Zepponi, Ziemer and Gonzalez.

Playing in the SCL, Zepponi might be the least known of the three, but she gets more than her share of attention from opponents.

“She’s a tremendous athlete,” Analy coach Joseph Heil said. “Sometimes we practice with the boys, and I would venture to say I think she could start on the Analy boys team. She’s strong, and she’s fast. In fact, the Analy boys, sometimes when we scrimmage, you can hear them, the admiration they have for her. She will outrun them, or put some moves on. She’s electric, she’s just so intense with the ball.”

And she’s highly versatile. Zepponi was the Tigers’ leading scorer as a freshman forward last year, when she got to play alongside older sister Colette (who is now competing for UC San Diego). This year, Heil felt he needed more speed and toughness in the midfield, so he asked her to move into the middle. Meanwhile, Zepponi plays in the backfield for the Freeze.

GOAL-ORIENTED: Maria Carrillo’s Madison Gonzalez scored the tying and winning goals in a close victory Oct. 9 over rival Montgomery. (Photo by Conner Jay, The Press Democrat)

GOAL-ORIENTED: Maria Carrillo’s Madison Gonzalez scored the tying and winning goals in a close victory Oct. 9 over rival Montgomery. (Photo by Conner Jay, The Press Democrat)

“Occasionally she begs me to go back and play fullback. That’s where she’s most comfortable because of her club team,” Heil said. “She’ll ask, ‘Can I play fullback now?’ And I’ll tell her no, I need you up top, and she’ll just say, ‘OK.’”

Zepponi does more running now that she’s a defensive midfielder, but says she’s getting used to that.

“The real challenge is because I never really played there,” Zepponi said. “I did when I as 9, but not since then. At midfield you have to distribute the ball. You’re in charge of that. You have to see the field at all times and know what’s going on around you.”

Here in Santa Rosa, Ziemer and Gonzalez have played their way into one of the best sports rivalries in the area. The Maria Carrillo girls have lost just one game over the past three seasons. This year, only two of their NBL games have been close — both of them 3-2 wins against Montgomery.

When the old foes faced off Oct. 9, the Vikings were leading until Gonzalez scored the tying goal to send the game into overtime. Then she scored again with less than two minutes remaining to deliver the Pumas a victory.

Carrillo coach Debra LaPrath has seen it many times by now.

“She’s really quick, and she has the ability to play with her head up and see what’s happening,” LaPrath said. “She’s always aware of pressure and where it’s from, and she’s always two and three moves ahead of the competition. When you’re smaller and quicker and you have a lower center of gravity, it’s a little easier to control the ball. But she has phenomenal vision and awareness. And she never stops.”

LaPrath said the diminutive Gonzalez, who has been offered a full scholarship to play at Santa Clara, is constantly getting knocked off the ball by bigger defenders. But she has an incredible knack of getting back on the ball almost immediately.

Ziemer is a much different type of player. She’s very strong, and very sound technically — not a surprise when you consider her family tree. Her mom coaches the Freeze, and her father, Marcus, coaches the Sonoma State men. Uncle Benjamin assists Marcus, Uncle Chris coaches the Sonoma Academy girls, and Uncle Andrew runs Ziemer Soccer, which trains and consults in the sport.

“She plays like a senior in her fourth year,” Montgomery coach Pat McDonald said. “She’s so smart on the field, sometimes I forget to treat her like a sophomore. From a soccer standpoint, she’s already mature. Sometimes I have to back off. She does some kind of play at practice, and I think, ‘What is she doing?’ Then I go, ‘Oh, yeah, she’s a sophomore.’”

Ziemer is still scoring goals at center-mid for the Vikings, but McDonald said she has gotten better at incorporating her teammates.

“She has a lot more assists this year,” the coach said. “She’s very smart with her passes. In the Casa game, we were in overtime and she had three people on her, and she looked up and found the head of a teammate who scored the winning goal. Maybe last year she wouldn’t have done that. She might have tried to score the winning goal.”

All three of these super sophs have matured this year, but with strong senior leadership on each of the teams, none of them has been asked to take on vocal roles. Instead, they can simply enjoy the game, have some fun and keep on winning.

“Personality-wise, I’d say she’s like a puppy,” Heil said of Zepponi. “She gets out there and wants to play.”

Sounds cute, but watch out. These puppies have some teeth.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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