Watsonville High junior midfielder/defender Emilio Mora, left, and the Wildcatz boys' soccer team will attempt to turn their season around with the start of PCAL Gabilan Division action underway. (Juan Reyes/The Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE—It’s been a frustrating season for Watsonville High center back Manuel Cano, who has been trying everything in his will to watch his teammates succeed. 

However, things are not looking too good at the moment for the Wildcatz boys’ soccer team, which is off to one of its worst starts in the program’s illustrious history.

The senior team captain doesn’t want to see them crumble after playing in a black and gold uniform all of these years. But he’s bummed out and disappointed about their sluggish start this season.

The frustration became clear after Watsonville lost to cross-town rival Pajaro Valley, 3-1, in non-league action Dec. 23.

“I feel like our team has the talent, but it’s just a slow start,” Cano said. “It’s really bugging me and all of our seniors, of course.”

Cano also got off to a slow start prior to his season after injuring his right knee that sidelined him for two months. It was a major setback and he gradually put on some weight, which he said is not ideal for a center back.

Yet he’s slowly rebuilding muscle mass to regain both strength and speed.

“I’m working on it and I feel like I’m coming back up,” Cano said. 

Just like the Wildcatz, who bounced back with a 2-0 win over Alvarez in Pacific Coast Athletic League Gabilan Division play Jan. 5.

With the win, they improved to 1-1-0 in league play and 2-6-1 overall. 

Watsonville coach Roland Hedgpeth said this year’s slow start is probably the toughest he’s had to endure during his 50-plus year tenure with the program. 

Everything is new for the ‘Catz, from a huge roster turnover to trying out the best lineups on the pitch. Especially with a young team featuring three freshmen including goalkeeper Adrian Fernandez.

Hedgpeth mentioned the JV players that came up to the varsity squad hadn’t played together prior to the season.

“We have a lot of numbers, a lot of them came out,” Hedgpeth said. “But, it took us a week or so to sift through them to see who we wanted out there.”

Hedgpeth’s primary focus early in the season was defense because he noticed the backfield was a bit vulnerable. He believes they’ve drastically improved in that particular area but now it’s the offense that still needs some work. 

Hedgpeth noted they don’t have a primary striker, or anybody on the pitch that wants to take the shot. 

“Last year, all my players wanted to shoot and we shot well,” Hedgpeth said. “Every game we’ve been in we’ve had the ball right there quite often.”

Last season, the ‘Catz were loaded with 20 seniors including standouts Mateo Arias, Lombardo Flores, Isaac Vargas and Luis Vleasco-Vazquez, who earned All-PCAL Gabilan Division First Team honors.

Arias and Vargas were recognized by the coaches within the league as the Offensive and Defensive Players of the Year, respectively.  

The ‘Catz went on a historic run by winning their 12th CCS crown and 10th under Hedgpeth following a 2-1 win over Branham in the Open Division finals. It was the first time since the 2016-17 campaign that Hedgpeth, 80, and the Wildcatz hoisted a CCS trophy.

They advanced to the NorCal Division I championship game where they came up short in a 3-1 loss to Whitney High of Rocklin near Sacramento.

Watsonville had just one player, Sergio Jimenez, return from last year’s squad. He didn’t see action this season until a non-league contest against Monterey on Dec. 13, which resulted in a scoreless draw.

Cano believes they came out overly confident after last year’s amazing success of winning a CCS title and runner-up in the NorCal playoffs.

“Boom, it hit us,” he said. “We have none of those players besides two or three, I feel like that’s what really let us down.” 

In order to turn things around, Cano said it’s going to take hard work and building a relationship with the team. Mostly because they’re from different age groups and play on different club teams.

The players haven’t quite figured out how to play as a whole unit and need to build a connection with each other in order to build team chemistry, Cano said.

The ‘Catz are making an effort to build that bond by going to the beach, pushing each other harder in practice and conditioning together. 

“Better times together, that’s what we need,” Cano said. 

Gabilan Division play is underway and Cano was hoping to start off strong in their path to another playoff run. Watsonville took a minor detour following a 2-1 loss to North Salinas in the teams’ league opener on Jan. 3.

Cano said they’ll continue to improve in order to reach the level they need to be in order to win a CCS crown. The team captain mentioned they have the talent, yet they still need to figure how to flip the switch at the same time. 

“I just want to see us play all together as a family, which we don’t have yet,” Cano said.

Watsonville’s quest for another Gabilan crown will come against some of the best teams in the section which includes Alisal (7-1-3, 4-0-0), North Salinas (6-1-2, 1-1-0), Alvarez (3-2-3, 0-2-0), Salinas (0-5-4, 0-1-0), Soledad (3-0-0) and Hollister (4-2-2, 0-1-0), which is returning to the A league for the first time in four years. 

“Anybody in our league is tough,” Hedgpeth said. “I don’t know how Soledad may be or may not be, but everybody else is going to be right there.” 

After a subpar performance in the preseason portion of their schedule, the only way the ‘Catz can get into the CCS playoffs is to do well in league play. 

Watsonville was supposed to travel Monday for a league game against Soledad, but that match was postponed due to road closures and flood watch warnings in the Central Coast.  

The ‘Catz also had Wednesday’s league game against Salinas postponed after Pajaro Valley Unified School District announced Thursday that schools would be shut down

Cano said the goal, as always, is to win a CCS title and just have fun with his teammates. They’ll continue to train at the beach and work harder than ever to figure out the winning formula once again. 

It won’t be easy, though. Cano said it’s going to be a tough job, but he’ll do whatever possible to get conditioned and to keep players ready the rest of the way. 

“It’s my last year and I want to have a blast,” he said.

Watsonville’s next match is scheduled at Alisal on Jan. 18 at 5:45pm.

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A Watsonville native who has a passion for local sports and loves his community. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College, San Jose State University and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumnus, he primarily covers high school athletics, Cabrillo College athletics, various youth sports in the Pajaro Valley and the Santa Cruz Warriors. Juan is also a video game enthusiast, part-time chef (at home), explorer and a sports junkie. Coaches and athletic directors are encouraged to report scores HERE.


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