Can’t beat Pumas – for past 49 games

By PHIL BARBER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Debra LaPrath remembers the game as if it were yesterday. It was October 2011, and LaPrath had been drilling her Maria Carrillo players on offensive and defensive set pieces. It’s a tedious thing to practice, and the Pumas hadn’t really been focusing. Sure enough, Cardinal Newman scored on a couple of free kicks to soccerwin that game.

Why would that outcome stick with LaPrath for more than two years, though it had no long-term effect on league standings or section championship hopes? Because the Carrillo girls haven’t lost since. They’ve gone 49 games — and counting — without feeling the sting of defeat.

“That’s obviously pretty special, and not something you see a lot,” Casa Grande girls coach Vinnie Cortezzo said. “We’ve had some dominant teams in the last 10 years or so, but I don’t think anyone can quite stand up to that. Montgomery won a couple titles in a row. We were in four title games in a row. But we never had a stretch of games without losing like that. It’s a clear definition of dominance when no one can beat you.”

The Pumas just capped their second straight undefeated season, beating North Bay League rival Montgomery 2-1 in the North Coast Section Division 1 title game Saturday to finish 20-0-1. (The tie came against Our Lady of Good Counsel of Olney, Md., on a September trip to the East Coast.) The Carrillo girls finished as the No. 1 team in the country in rankings compiled by both Student Sports and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.

It was a successful title defense by Maria Carrillo, which went 20-0 in 2012. But the run of excellence predates the undefeated seasons. In 2010, LaPrath’s team went 19-0-1 before losing to Cortezzo’s Gauchos in the NCS final. In 2011, the Pumas went 22-1 and won the NCS crown.

In other words, a girl like defender Rachel Sellner who played four years of varsity soccer will graduate with a cumulative high school record of 81-2-2. That’s a winning percentage of .976, which is a little ridiculous.

Certainly, Maria Carrillo’s recent success starts with a deep talent pool. The majority of the Carrillo girls have come up through the Santa Rosa United club program.

“They’re an extremely talented group of players that play soccer year-round,” Montgomery coach Pat McDonald said. “They play very well together and they’re extremely fast and hard to defend. I told my defenders Saturday, they gave up two goals, and they played incredible. I mean, they played great and gave up two goals. And defensively, they’re equally tough to score on.”

McDonald’s Vikings went 0-3 against Maria Carrillo this year. They were 19-0 against everyone else.

The Pumas’ depth is the envy of the rest of the Redwood Empire. Some coaches insist Maria Carrillo’s second set of 11 players could compete with most teams in the area.

“I see them subbing in off the bench when we play them, and I’m thinking, ‘That kid is on the bench?’ ” Cortezzo said. “They’ve got quite a lot of depth.”

LaPrath insists it isn’t just raw talent that powers the Pumas, though. She notes that of her six seniors, only one has committed to a college program.

And of course, managing an abundance of talent can be tricky. For the most part, LaPrath is able to keep her skillful backups happy and motivated. She is big into team-building exercises. The Pumas had to do a lot of fundraising for their trip to Maryland, but LaPrath is convinced it welded them together. The coach encourages team dinners and gives her players a writing assignment each week.

One of the assignments this year asked each player to name who, or what, inspires her. Three-quarters of the team mentioned Paige Ensign. A Carrillo junior, Ensign isn’t the fastest or strongest girl on the team, but nobody works harder.

“A kid like that, she probably got the least game time of anyone this season,” LaPrath said. “That’s what drives this team. Their goal was to get (a lead) and get these people in, and Paige was one of them. There may have been JV players who were stronger, but what this kid brought to the team, her work ethic, you don’t get that every year.”

LaPrath said her 2012 squad was probably more talented overall, and more intense. This year’s team knew how to have fun, and the camaraderie seemed to elevate its play. Before the championship game against Montgomery, LaPrath and her assistants were starting to organize in the parking lot when they noticed the players off to the side. They were working on a dance routine to ease the tension.

Still, these girls know that once the ball is kicked off, they have business to conduct.

“They’ve done a real nice job of creating an atmosphere and an expectation of success, and that’s big,” Cortezzo said. “They show up the first day expecting to win a title. When you have that kind of expectations going in, and that talent on your bench, it allows you to hold kids to a high standard, because there’s somebody who wants your spot. You’d better be at training, and you’d better be working hard, because if you’re not, you can be replaced.

“And they’re young, unfortunately,” Cortezzo added with a laugh. “They’re not going anywhere.”

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

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