Benefield: Soccer title for The Ranch

Rancho Cotate High School boys soccer coach Eamon Kelly led his team to its first-ever NBL league championship this season. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Rancho Cotate High School boys soccer coach Eamon Kelly led his team to its first-ever NBL league championship this season. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)



Rancho Cotate High School athletic director Henri Sarlatte had to check the gym walls to be sure.

Sarlatte, whose family history with The Ranch goes back decades to when his father was AD for the Cougars, couldn’t remember a boys soccer team ever winning the NBL title.

There was the dominant team in the ’90s, maybe they brought home a pennant? Sarlatte couldn’t be sure.

So when the Cougar squad started collecting wins like candy this season, Sarlatte walked into the gym and canvassed the banners. Not a one for boys soccer. Ever.

Well, somebody at The Ranch had better call maintenance; they’re going to need a ladder in the gymnasium. The Cougars have won league with an undefeated season and bestowed upon Rancho Cotate the first boys soccer league banner in the history of the school.

“It’s just amazing,” senior defender Sergio Bobadilla said.

All the more so because of the ebb and flow that seems to have marked the Rancho boys soccer program over the years. And truthfully, it’s been more ebbs than flows.

In his four years on the team, defender Allan Gomez has felt the sting of being a squad easily overlooked by opponents.

“Sometimes it was ‘Oh it’s Rancho, it’s all good, we’re going to win,’ ” he said.

But now that the Cougars are 10-0-3 heading into Sunday’s NCS tournament seeding meeting, it’s unlikely any opponents worth their salt will dismiss the Cougars.

Coach Eamon Kelly said he knew his squad was special after the team tied Windsor on Oct. 10. That’s a different take — calling out a tie in an undefeated season as a bellwether for the season?

But what Kelly saw that day was a team that fell behind — twice — and battled back both times.

“I knew then that they were fighters as well as skilled players,” he said. “You can have skilled players but they don’t have the fight. That’s when I knew this team was special. They have the fight and they have the want.”

The Cougars have the want and now they have the “got.” They’ve got a league title, but the players say they aren’t finished.

Around The Ranch, where football is often king, the soccer players are starting to get some attention. Classmates are offering congratulations, teachers are making all the home games — the kind of stuff usually reserved for the football players.

Yet as well as the Cougars have done on the gridiron this season, the fall squad tearing it up in league is that other ball sport.

“Soccer is not really that important,” Bobadilla said. “Most of the school is about football.”

That’s no diss on football. Soccer has struggled to get its act together some.

“The first couple of years I was AD, it was a struggle to get these kids to get their paperwork in,” he said of soccer players.

It took weeks to then build a JV squad.

“I would never schedule games early because we didn’t have a team,” Sarlatte said.

Kelly concurred. Kelly has had two stints at The Ranch, the most recent one starting five years ago.

Even then, he’d hear of skilled Rancho students who didn’t go out for the team. He’d try to find out why. Grades? Jobs?

Maybe, but mostly he thought it was about winning and lack of respect for what the Cougars were trying to do on the field.

He doesn’t hear that much anymore. The skill and work ethic of his players has risen so much that he’s got guys on the JV team that just a few years ago would have been among the varsity starters.

The other thing he doesn’t hear much of is Cougars chagrined about respect — amongst themselves or in the soccer community.

“Last year, there was still a little bit of ‘We’re Rancho, we don’t deserve it,’ ” Kelly said. “It’s not a ‘want’ anymore. We do belong in the upper echelon.”

It feels good up there. The young Cougars say they could get pretty comfortable in these parts.

“In training, you can really tell the hard work that people put in,” Gomez said.

And the Cougars are dangerously young. They start a freshman and a sophomore as their two strikers leading the offense.

One of those two, sophomore Enrike Gomez, doesn’t linger too long on the NBL title talk. He — and his teammates — want more.

When asked if the Cougars have what it takes to win NCS, Gomez answered quickly.


Pause? End of sentence?

The guy who talks all practice, barks commands at his teammates all game — the guy Kelly calls the Cougars’ “coach on the field,” was suddenly, emphatically silent.

But don’t take that quiet for unease or lack of surety.

From here, it looks a lot like confidence.

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