Benefield: Maria Carrillo at head of the pack

Maria Carrillo’s Claire Howard, left, and Maddy Gonzalez show younger kids a drill during a soccer camp Thursday. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

Maria Carrillo’s Claire Howard, left, and Maddy Gonzalez show younger kids a drill during a soccer camp Thursday.
(CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The history of girls soccer in the Empire is a lesson in runs — strings of victories that build up to back-to-back and sometimes back-to-back-to-back-to-back championships.

In the early 1990s it was the Montgomery Vikings putting together five straight years of North Coast Section championship teams. In the late ’90s, Ursuline was the team to beat. Maria Carrillo, which opened in 1996, won consecutive NCS titles in 2001 and 2002 but was kept off the top step of the podium for the next eight years as Montgomery won four more banners, Casa Grande picked up three and Ursuline added another.

But since 2011, it’s been all Pumas. They have won three NCS championships in a row, been atop state and national polls, and haven’t lost a match since 2011. If they have played varsity all along, this year’s seniors have lost one game in their high school careers. The juniors? They don’t know defeat when suited up in their green and gold kits.

“Our last four years’ (record) is 81-2-2, which is phenomenal,” head coach Debra LaPrath said. “But we don’t spend a lot of time talking about that.”

On the eve of the 2014 soccer season, the Pumas are the team to beat. Hands down.

Teams around the Empire will kick off their seasons this week, holding tryouts, assessing fitness, figuring out who will fill missing pieces.

Maybe because it was crazy hat and socks day at their youth camp last week, the Pumas have an air of easygoing confidence that their record surely buoys. Players were careful not to gloat. When asked about goals, they spoke of coming together as a team and bonding. They mentioned the Puma sisterhood and never overlooking any opponent.

But when pressed — What about winning the North Bay League? What about taking home the NCS title? — the answer is “Of course.” Or something close to it.

“I think we are expected to, so I want to pull that out,” senior defender Brianne Parsons said.

Led by Large School Player of the Year Maddy Gonzalez and her 21 goals and 17 assists last season, the Pumas present the same potent attack that led them to a 20-0-1 record in 2013.

They will host three out-of-state squads for preseason matchups in September, which should offer spectators some early-season, top-level soccer to watch.

Teams from Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md. (the only team to play the Pumas to a draw last season), and Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va., will travel more than 2,800 miles each to play both the Pumas and the Vikings over three days. But the Montgomery squad, practicing a mere 3 miles away, might present the greatest challenge Maria Carrillo faces all season.

The Vikings have been NCS runners-up to the Pumas three straight years. The same polls that rank Carrillo No. 1 in the state say Montgomery is No. 2.

Asked about big games this season, the East Coast teams are in there, but Monty is front and center. Bragging rights are a little sweeter when earned against your league neighbor rather than strangers from out of state.

“They always rise to the occasion against us like we do with them,” junior goalkeeper Claire Howard said of the Vikings. “It’s always a good game.”

Agreed, said longtime Vikings coach Pat McDonald.

“It’s fun playing them,” he said. “We just see them as our crosstown rival.”

The two face off Sept. 22 and Oct. 7. And if they don’t see each other again in the NCS final in November, count the soccer community shocked.

“Of course we are always thinking about Monty,” senior goalkeeper Jenna Tiewater said. “The atmosphere, the pressure, everything just gets built up. Just hearing Monty’s name — we are ready to go.”

The Vikings look ready to go, too.

They lost just three starters from their NCS runner-up starting lineup to graduation, and they return one of the most dominant players in the area in junior midfielder Taylor Ziemer.
Ziemer and company could get some support from a talented group of incoming freshmen, McDonald said.

“We are going to see how good we can be,” he said.

But the benchmark of success remains the Pumas. With unquestionable firepower up front, how the defense will shape up remains an unanswered question.

The Pumas lost All-Empire first-team defender Katie Prosser to graduation, along with two other members of the back line.

One defensive given is Parsons. Who will join her in front of the Pumas’ goalkeeper time-sharing tandem of Tiewater and Howard is still being sorted out. But LaPrath said she will be looking early this week at chemistry and working to find her players soon.

One gets the feeling, as the current go-to campus for many elite Santa Rosa United club players, the Pumas have an embarrassment of riches.

“We have kids ready to step into those positions,” LaPrath said. “I think you want to establish a back line pretty quick. You want those kids working together.”

Parsons, per usual for the Pumas, shows no sign of worry.

“We’ll get out the kinks like we always do,” she said. “We still have players who know how that back line worked. We may have a couple of faults, but what team doesn’t?”

For the fourth year running, the Pumas are expected to have fewer faults than any team around.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield