The Watsonville High boys’ soccer team is coming off another unforgettable season.
Only this time, it might be one that head coach Roland Hedgpeth would instead like to forget.
It was the first time in what feels like an eternity that the Wildcatz missed the Central Coast Section playoffs after capturing the program’s 12th section title just two years ago.
Hedgpeth is expecting another rocky road, yet he does see plenty of hope as Pacific Coast Athletic League play went underway last week.
“I think we’re gonna start stepping it up from now on, I think we’re gonna be a lot better,” he said.
Watsonville (1-4-4, 1-1-1) might be turning things around following a 2-1 win over North Salinas High (5-6, 0-3) in the teams’ PCAL Gabilan Division opener on Jan. 3.
The ‘Catz followed up with a 1-1 draw against Seaside High (5-2-3, 0-1-1) just two days later.
Hedgpeth—who has led the program to 10 CCS titles—said there’s been some improvement but the players still have a long way to go before reaching their maximum potential.
Watsonville has just seven returners from last season including Orlando Valtierra, and seniors Miguel Montes and Guadalupe Rico Garcia, who is the primary goal keeper this season.
“I expect a little more leadership from them,” said Hedgpeth following a 3-1 loss to Aptos on Dec. 20. “My leaders are my juniors right now. Trying to get the seniors to step up and they did a little bit more tonight.”
In 2022-23, the ‘Catz went 3-9-0 in Gabilan Division play and finished with a 3-14-1 overall record.
Watsonville will once again have a young roster featuring three sophomores and four freshmen. They haven’t fully recovered since making their way to the CIF NorCal Division I Championships and losing 19 seniors following the 2021-22 season.
Hedgpeth said it’s hard to determine the final roster because the junior varsity team is playing really well at the moment. They have about 25 players with the same skill set level.
“There’s not too many that stand out unless they’ve had experience,” Hedgpeth said.
Watsonville has also been hit with the injury bug, preventing players such as junior forward Orlando Valtierra from being on the pitch.
Valtierra said they’re currently struggling but he’s sure they could bounce back, especially because the team seems pretty solid.
“We have an understanding of how you play soccer, we have a good connection,” Valtierra said. “We know each other very well and we’re just working on the defensive end a little bit.”
Valtierra admits it was frightening joining the ‘Catz last season as a sophomore. He played a lot more timidly, especially since most opponents were older and experienced.
That hasn’t been the case this season for Valtierra, who believes his connection with teammates is different and is comfortable with the team.
Valtierra approached the new season with more confidence and put pressure onto his teammates to play at the highest level, trying to motivate them as much as possible.
There’s no doubt Valtierra has the attitude and mentality of a hustler. But, he’s been having trouble going full speed the entire game due to a groin injury that sidelined him for a little more than a week.
“I don’t want to stop because I love playing the sport,” he said.
Valtierra felt gloomy because it’s always been a goal of his to play, especially in high school.
“Having this injury is kind of sad because you’re letting your team down,” he said. “It’s just a place you don’t want to be.”
Hedgpeth doesn’t have a strong core of forwards to rely on when someone such as Valtierra is not available for action. However, he is excited about sophomore Nickolas Fuentes, a speedy forward with the ability to create shot opportunities.
The young standout started on the JV team and made his way up to varsity this season. Hedgpeth loves the way Fuentes hustles on the pitch and his ball control is what stands out the most.
“He’s awesome, he’s good,” Hedgpeth said.
Valtierra said his fellow teammate is well conditioned and has a good sense on what to do with the ball.
“[Fuentes] knows the sport very well,” Valtierra said. “He just never stops. He runs after the ball and puts himself in that position.”
Hedgpeth is excited to see what the underclassmen are capable of doing but they need to start stepping in and can’t be afraid of the challenges that lie ahead.
“Some of them are disappointed that we’re not doing as well but it takes everybody. It’s not just the two or three,” Hedgpeth said.
During their non-league contest against Aptos, the ‘Catz players waited for the ball to come to them while the opposition came up for the interception.
“I want them to challenge right away, to be moving all the time towards the ball and that will help us a lot,” Hedgpeth said.
In terms of scoring, Valtierra believes they can do a better job. He said they have plenty of great chances but they need to be aggressive like shooting outside the box and testing the goalkeeper to find his weaknesses.
“We’re in front of the goal, but we just have something that tells us not to shoot, I guess,” Valtierra said.
Watsonville dropped its first league game of the season following a 3-0 loss to Hollister High (4-5-1, 1-2) on Thursday.
Others in the mix for a league title include Alvarez High (6-4, 3-0), Greenfield High (5-4-1, 2-1) and defending champion Alisal High (7-2-1, 2-1).
It won’t be an easy task for the ‘Catz. Still, Valtierra is confident enough they’ll at least put up a fight until the very end.
“It’s obviously going to be complicated, but we just got to work as a team and just hope for the best,” he said. “We’ve won this league before, so I think we have it under our belts if we keep trying and not give up. I think we got it.”