Prior to the start of the season, Scotts Valley High senior Naiya Samios believed playing through a challenging preseason could have easily ruined their confidence level from the get-go.
At one point, the standout midfielder/forward and team captain asked the coaching staff if they should reschedule their season opener against Harker.
Harker—winners of the West Bay Athletic League in 2021-22—beat the Falcons, 4-0, in non-league action Nov. 29.
“I didn’t want to bring our spirits down in the first game,” Samios said. “Even though we lost it kind of built my confidence.”
Samios bounced back the following day with a goal to help lift Scotts Valley to a 3-0 non-league win against North Monterey County.
The Falcons (2-3-2) lost to both Piedmont Hills and Terra Nova, and earned a draw against Westmont during the tournament at the Firebird Classic at Fremont High.
Samios was eager to get back on the pitch after a long break following her club season with the Santa Cruz Breakers. She’s currently on winter break for school, but she wants to begin so they can get Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League play underway.
“I’m excited to get the ball up and see what we can do with it, and what all of our young players can do,” Samios said.
Last season, Scotts Valley went 6-9-1 and it finished third in the league standings with a 5-5 record.
It’s been 11 years since they’ve won an SCCAL championship and 15 years since capturing the Central Coast Section Division III title in 2007-08.
The last time they qualified for the postseason was a 4-0 loss to Christopher in the D-III quarterfinals during the abbreviated 2022 spring season.
This year’s cast of Falcons features a small group of upperclassmen with three seniors and three juniors. The rest of the roster is made up of sophomores and freshmen.
Scotts Valley coach Taylor Raymond wanted to challenge this young squad a bit before heading into next week’s grueling league schedule.
She noticed players were fully committed after hitting the weight room, playing against the JV team and practicing during winter break.
Samios—who has a team-leading three goals—is in her fourth year on the varsity squad and knows what it takes to be committed to the program.
“Pretty much a force to be reckoned with out there,” Raymond said. “Her ball control is incredible and she really helps the team.”
Samios is feeling a lot more confident following the challenging preseason, especially seeing the effort put in from such a young squad.
“It’s cool to see the energy and excitement that we have,” she said. “You can really see it when we’re playing.”
Senior center defender and fellow team captain Alex Tevis is a player that teammates feel more comfortable with when she’s in the back line clearing the ball out of their zone.
Then they have sophomore outside wing Skyler Dufour, who is the most improved player from last year.
“[Dufour’s] running the whole time, trying to get us the ball and trying to score some goals,” Samios said.
Dufour has recorded multiple goals this season. Raymond can tell the young standout speedster has been practicing in her spare time.
“[Dufour’s] getting more comfortable on the field and playing against those higher level teams,” Raymond said.
Another big challenge for these youngsters is the overall inexperience against higher level teams from over the hill in San Jose, and even those in Santa Cruz County.
Raymond said maintaining a high confidence level is another part of that difficult task. She knows the skill level is there, but it’s about working together as a team and not getting defeated when the game isn’t going in their favor.
It could be tough to mend the gap between a large group of freshmen and the upperclassmen. Yet, the confidence level is growing and the team bonding is getting stronger with this particular group.
“If they improve their confidence through the season and are happy to play every single game, that’s all I’m looking for this season,” Raymond said.
Samios remembers being a freshman and making mistakes, which at the time shot her confidence level down.
However, this year’s group has become a close-knit team. They bond on Fridays by doing team workouts, scrimmaging with the boys’ team or going out to an entertaining activity such as watching a movie.
Samios believes they’re having a blast despite the wide age gaps.
“You can see their work is paying off and you can see that everyone is getting better,” she said.
Samios said the preseason portion of their schedule was a good warm up for what will be a competitive SCCAL, which features teammates from the Santa Cruz Breakers club team.
Samios is also thrilled at a chance to play against Santa Cruz and Aptos after both teams suffered a large turnover.
“It’s kind of weird,” she said. “Even though it’s fun, it does get a little competitive.”
Last year, former Santa Cruz standout and close friend Julia Moore got the best of her after Moore busted a move in the midfield, zooming past Samios to score a goal.
“Of course it was against me, but you have to congratulate them after the game and it’s always fun talking to them,” Samios said.
Aptos (4-3-1) Santa Cruz (6-1-0) and Soquel (3-3) are the heavy favorites to put up a fight for the league crown. But there’s also the resurgence of Harbor (6-4) and San Lorenzo Valley (1-4-1).
Raymond added that playing each league opponent twice will give a young team great exposure to other possible challenges down the road.
“They’re always tough games but they’re super rewarding when you’re done with it,” Raymond said.
Cougars aim to reset the culture
The San Lorenzo Valley High girls’ soccer team hasn’t seen much success in terms of wins and losses for the past few years.
They went 1-14-1 overall and were 0-9-1 in SCCAL play in 2021-22.
Cougars’ second-year coach Kim Petersen knows it’s going to be a long term process to build a program that can compete within the SCCAL.
However, the players have put in the work in the preseason and offseason, already surpassing the bar from last year.
“We’re going to be underdogs again this year but I think we’re really setting a strong foundation for the future,” Petersen said.
The Cougars aren’t equipped with club soccer players like teams such as Aptos and Santa Cruz.
Still, their skills are coming along and players are starting to understand the system the coaches want them to play, Petersen said.
“It’s going to continue to be a work in progress,” she said.
Petersen mentioned the process in soccer is slow. The biggest challenge for her is doing a culture reset by getting the players to understand what it means to play in a serious soccer program.
Luckily, it didn’t take long for players to buy into the process and understand the level of commitment it takes to play at the varsity level.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” Petersen said.
Petersen said one thing to keep an eye out for is how the SCCAL changed the way the games are scheduled this year.
It used to be that the JV and varsity girls teams would host a game, while the boys teams played on the road.
This year the league decided to align the basketball and soccer games. JV games are on Monday and Wednesday, varsity play on Tuesday and Friday.
Petersen said it’s problematic because it means the only day they can use the turf field for practice is Thursday.
“It’s pretty troubling for all of soccer in our area, especially because we don’t have lights,” she said.
The last time the Cougars finished with a record of .500 or above was 8-8-3 in 2018-19.
Prior to that, the last time SLV finished with a winning record was in the 2006-07 season when Chelsea Schwerdtfeger led them to 9-9-3 overall and went 7-3-2 in SCCAL play.
It was also the last time SLV went to the Central Coast Section playoffs, losing to Del Mar of San Jose in the Division II first round.
Seniors Gianna Schwarzbach and Katie Wise along with junior Joci Carknar represent what a team captain means to be on and off the pitch.
The Cougars trio are strong role models for following their set of values: commitment, hard work, teamwork and positivity. They’ve also been instrumental in helping Petersen reset the culture.
“It’s not just coming from the coach, it’s coming from the peers,” she said.
The Cougars are led by eight juniors and four sophomores in Betsy Edwards, Naomi Sifton, Jessica Stoelting and Ruby Nunns, who is transitioning from a defender to a forward because of her ability to put the ball in the back of the net.
Petersen said this group of youngsters are helping change the program immediately and will continue to be backbones in the future. A major part of that is the leadership of some of the seniors.
“We’re just going to be able to build on that,” she said.