The beginning of the 2023-24 season was plagued with injuries and illness for the Pajaro Valley High girls’ soccer team.
At times, they were forced to play with just half of a roster available to suit up.
The Grizzlies were also missing star player Valeria Acosta, who sat out most of the preseason with concerns that soccer would interfere with school work.
However, the junior striker made her anticipated return to the pitch just in time before league play went underway.
“I’m here to help my teammates, I want to win,” she said. “The whole point of me coming back was to help them, so that was kind of my goal.”
Acosta currently has the Grizzlies in the race for the Pacific Coast Athletic League Mission Division crown. They improved to 6-1-2 following a tie against Pacific Collegiate School after the match ended in a 1-1 draw on Jan. 30.
PV head coach Kristian Flores said the possession game is on-point, and the defense is like a brick wall, but it’s Acosta with the “It” factor who makes things happen.
Acosta is the Grizzlies’ main attacking threat with 10 goals and one assist in six games played, according to statistics on the MaxPreps website. She also brings a certain enthusiasm for her teammates.
“Let’s get it to [Acosta] and we know that she’s going to create an opportunity for herself or she’s going to create an opportunity for somebody else,” Flores said.
PV has a core group of returners from the 2022-23 team, including Maricza Rodriguez, Andrea Chavez, Leilani Vazquez and Isabella Brandon.
Flores also brought in additional players to take on more of a supporting role.
Leading the underclassmen is freshman Anna Vazquez and sophomore Zitlali Rivera, both of whom have become a small spark of energy for PV. Acosta also loves the effort from sophomore Scarlet Gomez, who has a team-best six assists.
“[Gomez] gives it her all each game. She’s out there putting her body on the line. That girl amazes me how much she could run and not get tired,” Acosta said.
On the backline is Rocio Acosta, who plays with her older sister Valeria on the PV United youth soccer club in Watsonville. The sophomore defender can close in on most through balls, helping prevent any scoring chances from the opposition.
Acosta said they might have a newer, younger team but she’s confident they can still make some noise within the league.
The players made it a point to establish a bond with each other from the get-go. They did team bonding events and dinners on most Fridays nights.
“I feel like our bond helps us in the game because if we have a good bond outside, then the game is going to be good, too,” she said. “You’re not going to be selfish, you trust them.”
Flores is impressed how tightly knitted the group became, along with the ability to integrate underclassmen into the roster.
“We bring them in because we know that they could contribute and they’re a player just like everybody else,” Flores said.
There came a certain point in the 2022-23 season where Flores knew they weren’t winning a league crown or going to the Central Coast Section playoffs.
The Grizzlies finished with a 10-9-1 overall record and placed fourth in the Mission Division, going 5-6-1 in league play. They lost nine seniors due to graduation.
Flores began laying the foundation for this season and the subsequent one knowing what was in store for the future. He is expecting to have a larger group of seniors along with a bigger supporting cast for next season.
Still, that doesn’t mean this year’s group won’t compete and strive to win a Mission Division championship.
“They already know what I’m asking for but at the same time we’re not getting too far ahead of ourselves,” Flores said. “I think we’re definitely one of the top teams, now it’s just about putting everything together and having a little bit of a run.”
Flores scheduled a challenging preseason with teams of the PCAL Gabilan Division and the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League to get players acclimated with tougher opponents.
“The teams in our division aren’t going to be quite to that level, but at the same time, we prepared ourselves against those teams so they can see what top division teams such as Watsonville and Alvarez are made of,” Flores said.
The Grizzlies suffered their first league loss of the season after falling to Soledad, 2-1, on Jan. 12.
Acosta scored the team’s lone goal and had several opportunities to add more, including a wide open shot that sailed far right during the second half.
“We always have a lot of chances,” she said. “But there’s always that last little bit that you have to give. You have to put them in the back of the net. What’s the point of getting there if you’re not making it?”
Flores echoed Acosta, saying that the finishing aspect has been hard and it’s something all teams deal with each year.
“We have the passing, we have the possession, we have the defense at times,” he said. “It’s just sometimes the ball goes in, sometimes the ball doesn’t.”
Since then, the Grizzlies won four straight including a pair of shutouts victories against North Salinas [4-0] and Seaside [3-0].
Flores has an idea of where each team in the Mission Division stands. He believes PV is definitely in contention for the league title.
PV (7-5-2, 6-1-2) will have a rematch with the Aztecs (12-3-1, 6-2) in a battle for first place at Soledad on Feb. 1 at 5:45pm.
Another team still in the hunt is Monte Vista Christian (8-5-3, 6-2), which will host the Grizzlies in the regular season finale on Feb. 9 at 5:45pm.
“It’s a toss up, who knows what’s gonna happen,” Flores said. “Which is fun but now it’s just about getting [players] to be committed…We’ve got to just go out there and play every game how it comes.”