It is a myth that the best shooters and dribblers at a given high school play for the basketball team. It's certainly not that way at Santa Paula, where the best ballhandlers in school don't necessarily play on a court.
They play on a soccer field.
It has been that way for most of the past eight years. Since Coach Joe Magdaleno started the program, the Cardinals have won 119 games, lost 20 and tied 6.
At Santa Paula, that accomplishment is magnified by the records of the school's football and basketball teams over the same period. The Cardinals were 5-4-1 and made the playoffs last football season, but the school is constantly hampered by the traditionally small student population. That's small as in both student enrollment and in the height and weight of its male population.
To wit: the tallest player on this season's basketball team--which is off to a 5-12 start--stands six feet.
"In soccer you don't have to have the height," Magdaleno said. "Quickness and speed are more important if you have a real disciplined team. The things that I stress more than winning in my program are discipline, pride and respect for one another and yourself. If you have that, you should be successful in all endeavors in life."
To that end, Magdaleno has a strict set of rules, one of which is that there will be no profanity. Putting this kind of gag order on a group of male soccer players could be compared to trying to ban cheerleaders from giggling, but at Santa Paula it has been successful.
"They'll run all practice if they do," Magdaleno said. "I expect them to be gentlemen--on the field, off the field and in the classroom."
Marco Sanchez, a Times' All-Ventura County football player and starting fullback on the soccer team, said Magdaleno bases his program on mutual respect.
"He likes to be treated with respect and when he is, he returns it," Sanchez said. "He says, 'I don't cuss in front of you and I don't want you to cuss in front of me.' He won't allow it. He'll send you home."
Magdaleno is an admitted disciplinarian and he has to be. He is in charge of attendance and discipline for the school's alternative education programs. He counsels students 18 and under in an effort to keep them in school, and he recruits adults 19 and older, trying to bring them back.
The soccer team itself keeps three or four students a year in school, Magdaleno said. "I've talked to the families who wanted their sons to go to work, part time, full time or whatever, but they wanted them to stay in school to play soccer on the team.
"I try to work around that. I'll let them off practice to go to work after school as long as I know the situation. And since I make home visits, I know the situation. I'm not real strict on that. There are priorities in life."
A great number of Santa Paula players come from Spanish-speaking households, but Magdaleno refuses to speak anything but English in practice. To illustrate why, he tells a story about Joel Quintero, the team's goalie in 1980.
"I was speaking to the team in Spanish because 75% of them didn't understand English well and Joel just stopped me flat, cold," Magdaleno said. "He said, 'Coach, don't speak to us in Spanish. We want to learn English.' I've done it ever since. I'm giving them an education in English and in soccer."
The Cardinals are learning their lessons well. Santa Paula is 8-3 this season, 2-0 in the Frontier League. All three losses occurred in the Simi Valley tournament over the holidays. The Cardinals were short-handed at the time because players were vacationing with their families.
Santa Paula finished second to eventual Southern Section 1-A Division champion Agoura in the Frontier League last season but lost in the first round of the playoffs to Oak Park on penalty kicks. So what did Magdaleno do? He mourned a bit, then scheduled Oak Park as his team's opener this season. The Cardinals won, 2-0.
In the past seven seasons, Santa Paula has won three league titles and missed the playoffs only once. Four times it has reached the semifinal round only to lose. "It's nice to have a talented team, but once you make it to the final four teams you have to have breaks," Magdaleno said. "You have to be lucky and good. We have been unlucky."
Santa Paula is ranked No. 1 in the 1-A this season, which in itself shows how far the program has advanced. In 1980, the program's first season, Magdaleno had to beg to play against powerhouse teams looking for an easy win.
As a new team playing without league affiliation, Santa Paula had to qualify for the Southern Section playoffs as a free-lance team, which meant it had to schedule tough schools to impress the playoff committee.
Santa Paula played 13 games against some of the best teams around, winning 11. Magdaleno recalls one particularly satisfying victory.
"We played Royal High, the defending champions that year, and we beat them," he said. "We walked on there with borrowed uniforms from AYSO with a patch over the name. They started laughing at us. We were a rag-tag team. They had their fancy sweats and they were defending champions and they felt that we didn't belong on the field with them. We beat them, 1-0, and they never even came over to shake our hands after the game."
From such early victories, Magdaleno--and Mrs. Magdaleno in this case--have bred success.
Magdaleno's sons, Joey and Dustin, are starting forwards and the team's top scorers.
Joey, a two-time All-Southern Section selection in soccer and a star running back-receiver on the football team, has nine goals. Dustin, a freshman, has seven.
The team has another brother combination. The Elizarrarrases--Gilbert, Jose and Carlos--play the midfield.
"That in itself lends to our success," Magdaleno said. "They really don't have to talk to each other to communicate on the field. They know what each other is going to do without even having to talk."
Gilbert, an all-league selection last season, said that some things other teams have to practice are second nature to Santa Paula players because of their familiarity.
"With my brothers, we already know what we're doing," he said. "We don't have to talk. We've played together since we were little kids."
With all the team's success, however, it still doesn't have much of a following on campus.
"It's still the football team around here," Joey Magdaleno said. "We don't get much credit. We're known more away from here than we are at school. When you say you go to Santa Paula, people say, 'Oh, yeah, Santa Paula soccer.' We're known for that."
And a championship might even make the team popular on its own campus.