Year in and year out, the Sunset League is one of the most competitive girls’ soccer leagues in Orange County.
What’s different this year is that Marina, the doormat a year ago with a 0-9-1 league mark, appears to be a contender.
The Vikings went 12-1-3 in the preseason, and built off that success by notching wins over Fountain Valley and Edison in their first two league games. Their unbeaten streak reached 17 games after the win over Edison, their first over the rival Chargers in three seasons.
Marina lost twice last week, to Huntington Beach and Los Alamitos, to fall to 2-2 in league. But gone is the embarrassment from last year, when Marina’s nine league losses included a 10-0 setback to Huntington Beach. First-year head coach Heath Oberle, who previously was the boys’ soccer coach at Westminster High for six seasons, appears to be making a difference.
You kind of assume the worst when you see 0-9-1, but I knew a lot of the girls through club and everything.
Marina coach Heath Oberle
Now, the Vikings aim to make the CIF Southern Section playoffs for the first time since 2010-11. Oberle, 32, believes his team can do it.
“You kind of assume the worst when you see 0-9-1, but I knew a lot of the girls through club and everything,” said Oberle. “I knew the talent was here. We just needed to make sure we were working hard and focused on changing the culture. A lot of that came from picking captains that I felt like had the same goals and values as I did, that were going to help push that onto the team and the program as a whole.
“The goal was to be .500 in preseason and to maintain that .500 record for a potential CIF bid. We lost our first game and haven’t looked back since.”
The team captains are senior forward Erika Sosa, senior defender Autumn Stewart and junior midfielder Kellie Hallworth.
“We came in really nervous, not knowing what to expect coming off last year,” said Sosa, a four-year varsity player who is bound for Sacramento State. “It’s really surpassed my expectations by a lot where we are now.”
Marina won the Ocean View Winter Classic tournament in the preseason. The Vikings have also been bolstered by a pair of very talented freshmen, speedy forward Kaitlyn Paculba up top and center back McKenna Pua.
The culture appears to be changed, and the results have followed.
“There’s an expectation to win,” Hallworth said. “Now, we’re mad if we’re not winning or performing at our best. People are shocked, in a good way. We’re shocked, too. I knew that we would be better, but I totally was not expecting this.”
Of course, the road to a Sunset League title is tough. Los Alamitos, in first place in league coming into the week at 3-0-1, began the season ranked No. 2 in CIF Southern Section Division 1 and ranked No. 2 in the state by MaxPreps.com. And Edison plans to defend last year’s Sunset League crown, though the Chargers lost 12 seniors to graduation.
Dartmouth-bound Michael Guptill and fellow senior captains Madi Macias and Kayla Herbert are the ones creating most of the scoring chances this season for Edison, which has come together lately. Coach Kerry Crooks’ Chargers finished third in their pool at the Excalibur Tournament of Champions, but finished that tournament with three straight wins to claim ninth place. They were 2-2 in league heading into the week.
Huntington Beach finished just third in the league a year ago, but went on to make the CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinals and the CIF Southern California Regional Division 1 title game for the first time in program history. The Oilers lost goalkeeper Rachel Harris, the Daily Pilot Dream Team Player of the Year, as she graduated and now plays at Arkansas. And they also had a multitude of injuries in the preseason, but the Oilers also made the Excalibur Tournament of Champions title game before falling to Rancho Cucamonga Los Osos in a shootout.
Senior defender Brianna Barnes (knee) and senior forward Alijah Oliver (Achilles), both of whom are team captains, have returned in time for league play for Huntington Beach.
“The beautiful thing about the Sunset League is that it only makes us stronger, but I think our league this year is open,” Huntington Beach coach Raul Ruiz said. “I think Los Al is the favorite, but the league is wide open.”
Newport Harbor is led by senior captains Scout Farmer and Ashlee Young and junior captain Sofia Velasquez. The Sailors had a strong preseason that included the “ABCD” division title in the Best in the West tournament. The Sailors battled Los Alamitos to a scoreless tie in a road league opener, but then lost three straight.
Fountain Valley also had a strong preseason before dropping its first two league games, but it rebounded to beat Newport Harbor and tie Huntington Beach last week. Senior forward and team captain Marissa Lynch leads the Barons, along with senior striker Kylee Wilson.
Elsewhere, Corona del Mar is looking to defend its Pacific Coast League title. The Sea Kings have sophomore Megan Chelf, a University of Arizona commit who scored a team-best 14 goals last season, back in action. But coach Bryan Middleton has had to restructure his defense a bit after junior center back Alyssa McKenzie suffered a quadriceps injury in the Battle of the Bay game against rival Newport Harbor. Versatile junior Katharine Caston has gone to defense to help bolster a stellar group that includes senior Julie Bartz, sophomore Alex Ianni, freshman Avery Doherty and sophomore goalkeeper Giovanna Broderick. CdM won its first two league games last week, against University and Beckman.
Laguna Beach is the defending Orange Coast League champion, but it had a rough preseason. Longtime coach Bill Rolfing resigned in the offseason and Ben Helm, who was the Breakers’ freshman boys’ soccer coach, took charge. Junior Blake Turner is not playing high school soccer this season as she plays for the U.S. Soccer Girls' Development Academy, but the Breakers still have her sophomore sister, Reilyn, a UCLA commit who is a very talented striker.
Another team typically in contention for the Orange Coast League title is Estancia. The Eagles also had a rough preseason, but coach Josh Juarez got sophomore Desiree Mendoza, who scored 17 goals last season, back in time for league. Mendoza missed all but one game in the preseason due to club commitments and an ankle injury.
Sophomore center back Wendy Milan and senior midfielder Tabytha Smith were two players who had standout preseasons for Estancia, Juarez said. The Eagles beat Saddleback and tied Godinez to open league play.
Ocean View is yet another traditionally strong team that had a tough preseason, but it will look to regroup as it attempts to win its fourth straight Golden West League title. Ocean View shared the title with Westminster last season. Senior midfielder Micayla Shook, in her second season as team captain, leads the Seahawks.
Sage Hill hopes to contend for an Academy League title, though those hopes took a hit after losses to Crean Lutheran and St. Margaret’s early in league. The Lightning have UCLA-bound senior striker Taylor Magliarditi up top, while assistant coach Megan Cid said that freshman center midfielder Lexi Van Den Bosch and junior center back Karli Davis have also been standouts.
Pacifica Christian Orange County, playing in its second varsity season, had a strong preseason and is 1-1 in the San Joaquin League. Junior Sadie Hill paced the Tritons with nine goals and nine assists entering the week, while freshman Casie Carlson had five assists.