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Defense wins championships

With no clear favorite, defense might determine the title

Posted: January 9, 2009 10:11 p.m.
Updated: January 10, 2009 4:30 a.m.
Saugus striker Erick Esquivel (19) makes a run down the left flank earlier this season. Esquivel will be among those counted on to provide the Centurions with a scoring punch. Saugus striker Erick Esquivel (19) makes a run down the left flank earlier this season. Esquivel will be among those counted on to provide the Centurions with a scoring punch.
Saugus striker Erick Esquivel (19) makes a run down the left flank earlier this season. Esquivel will be among those counted on to provide the Centurions with a scoring punch.

If you don't recognize Foothill League boys soccer this season, you're not alone.

Graduation losses, stylistic overhauls and new head coaches are rampant in the Santa Clarita Valley this season, and amid all the change, defense remains a stabilizing element of success.

That's how first-year West Ranch coach Mo Burgess sees it.

"Our team goal is to shut somebody out to zero shots in a game," he said. "It's not just a shutout. We want our goalkeeper to be bored."

Even if that happens, other teams might still find it tough to score on West Ranch.

Goalkeeper Billy Morales is back, along with central defender Colin Amsler and center midfielder Steven Delgado. All three are seniors, all three are captains and all three provide leadership to a squad that flexed its depth in the preseason.

"We've had 20 guys start and not miss a beat," Burgess said. "I've had no problem going to anybody on that bench. That's what our goal was getting into the season."

Burgess brings his brand of full-field defense to the Wildcats from Oak Park High School, where he spent last season as both the varsity and junior varsity coach. With West Ranch entering just its fifth year of existence, Burgess already has people in place with the varsity, junior varsity and frosh/soph teams to build the program.

"We communicate very strongly," he said. "We actually believe in one big program, and all our kids support the other kids.

"It's a young program and we want to start creating some history, so that's our big thing as a team."

If the Wildcats want the top spot, there are three teams they're going to have to chase.

A year ago, Saugus split the league championship with Hart and Canyon, but lost most of its starting lineup due to graduation or club commitments.

Does that mean the Centurions will take a step backward in 2009?

Dynamic striker Erick Esquivel is back up top, and the sophomore is leading the team in scoring through the preseason.

"He's just a phenomenal player and a joy to watch," said Saugus head coach Seth Groller. "He's got so much skill. It's really great to coach him and watch him on the field."

Senior goalkeeper Pierre Diaz will enjoy his first year as a starter, but Groller said Diaz learned a lot playing behind former Centurion Joey Mackey, who now plays for The Master's College.

Junior Manny Padron stands out among a young group of midfielders, and Saugus' defense has been mostly patchwork due to injuries. Despite the struggles, Saugus made strides in its preseason matches.

"I think we're definitely on the right track," Groller said. "We haven't had a preseason that has gone flawless by any sense of the word, but the thing I'm stressing with my team is improving from game to game. To be honest, we're sitting in a pretty good spot."

That spot could be strengthened by the weakness of the rest of the league.

"Unfortunately, I think our league's going to be a little bit down this year," Groller said. "It's not just our team, it's a lot of teams in the Foothill League. I think there's a lot of parity. We're all kind of struggling a bit."

Hart knows what he means.

In addition to losing 2008 Foothill League Player of the Year Joel Peluffo, who now plays for The Master's College, former head coach Robert Ramirez resigned in the offseason.

Fortunately for Hart, new head coach Fausto Arana brings a wealth of knowledge to the Indians, some of which he learned coaching the junior varsity team the last three seasons.

"What we learned from (Ramirez) is the work ethic, being there all the time and trying to work hard all the time," Arana said.

Certain changes are in store, however. Instead of playing a diamond formation on defense with a sweeper and stopper, Hart has switched to the flat back four, which Arana believes enhances teamwork and trust.

As the defenders transition into the new formation, holding midfielder Juve Trujillo will play an important role in disrupting opponents' strategy while attacking midfielder Armand Simian is charged with orchestrating the offense.

Up top, strikers Max Robin, Fernando Guerrero and Ben Kret hope to be the beneficiaries of Simian's play, while the Indians will also rely on key returnees Ian Loveland and Uriel Rodriguez.

If all goes well, Arana's team will switch from the traditional 4-4-2 formation to a 3-4-3, which adds an extra striker.

"We want our forwards to be a little bit more aggressive," Arana said. "We don't have that aggressiveness toward the goal. We have a couple players that are helping us out with that."

Another defending Foothill League co-champion just hopes to score.

Unlike the rest of the league, Canyon has an experienced coach and a ton of returning upperclassmen to go along with a stout defense.

Offense is another issue.

"It's going to be tough to score on us," said head coach Khris Savage. "Our only problems are going to be putting the ball in
the net."

Savage admits that the Cowboys are going to rely heavily on converting set pieces, and he can go deep into his talented bench for fresh legs.

Meanwhile, co-captains Andrew Wilson and Shaun McLaughlin will make sure Canyon's sheet stays clean.

Wilson is a smart junior who's been starting since he was a freshman, and McLaughlin is a versatile senior who can play either central defender or defensive mid in Savage's 3-5-2 formation.

Vincent Donato and Carlos Barragan will patrol the wings on defense, and from there, it's up to the Cowboys' quick but undersized offense to manufacture goals.

A tough preseason schedule has only helped their progress.

"You really want to play up," he said. "We're really fortunate to get the schedule that we got, which made a great preseason for us. We were developing a strong defense by playing these really good teams, and last year at this point, we were scored on by all these teams. We're where we should be right now."

Valencia feels the same way, although after losing several starters, head coach Tony Scalercio isn't entirely sure where his team will end up.

"I think anyone can win this league," he said. "I think it's up in the air. I don't think there's one team that's going to run away with it."

Someone who can help get the Vikings to the top of the Foothill League is senior sweeper Greg Drake, a four-year starter who can also keep opposing defenses honest.

"He does a really nice job in the back," Scalercio said. "He's also a scoring threat because if he gets a look at the net, he can score from distance."

Wesley Engel and Blake Sunderman join Drake on an experienced defense.

Up top, Jason Kent and Renato Sanchez will bring a solid mix of speed and skill to Valencia's attack and Scalercio hopes his team maintains its intensity for every second of Foothill League play.

"One of the weaknesses that we have is that we need to be able to play for the whole 80 minutes and not take mental or physical breaks," he said. "We're doing OK in terms of results, but we tend to take breaks at critical times."

Golden Valley was at its best during the critical times last season, going 4-1-1 in its last six games.

Unfortunately, the Grizzlies dug themselves a hole by losing their first four league games, and second-year varsity coach Phil Lopez said his team is focused squarely on the playoffs.

"We'd be happy to come in third and make the playoffs," he said. "Last year we had the talent to do it. It was just a matter of getting it all on the field at the same time."

The squad Lopez puts on the field this year will be weaker offensively but stronger defensively, with tri-captains Bino Horne, Tim Stanley and James Schlegel solidifying Golden Valley's defense, with Horne and
Stanley periodically rotating to the attack.

Sophomore striker Andy Ruiz is Golden Valley's most skilled offensive player, and will be counted on to generate goals in the Grizzlies' 4-4-2 formation.

"We try to play team ball, spread the ball around, fundamental team play," Lopez said. "We've done a couple tournaments, nothing to sing about result-wise. But the whole point was to get ready for the season and get as varied competition as possible."


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