WATSONVILLE—A typical day of practice for Pajaro Valley High senior Karla Leyva is highly unlike most of the other soccer players in the area.
Instead of meeting up after school with her teammates, the Grizzlies girls’ soccer team is already on the pitch before the sun begins to creep over the hills of Watsonville.
“It’s hard because we get there and it’s super cold in the morning. Sometimes we’ve been rained on,” she said. “But it makes a difference, you can kind of see everyone’s commitment based on the morning’s practices.”
Pajaro Valley High’s stadium—as beautiful as it turned out—is not equipped with lights, which makes it difficult for players to train after school.
Grizzlies coach Kristian Flores talked with Leyva and the other team captains, who decided to give mornings a try. Now, they have a group of up to 25 girls showing up at 6:30am whether it’s cold or raining.
“I don’t think there would be very many programs out there to convince a group of 25 teenage girls to wake up at 6 o’clock in the morning to go after something that they want,” Flores said.
Flores said Leyva has been the type of player who can leave an impression for the next generation of players coming through the program.
Leyva—who carries a 4.0 grade point average—has set the standard as far as work ethic, commitment and the skills to be able to produce plays on the pitch and in the classroom.
“They really look up to her, kind of see her as a role model, what it means to be a Grizzly and also what it means to be a student-athlete,” Flores said.
Leyva will lead a balanced mix of returning upperclassmen and underclassmen, as well as players who didn’t play last season.
“It’s about integrating those new players and finding what my best starting 11 is,” Flores said.
Valeria Acosta, a sophomore, is an up and coming Grizzly that offers a little bit of everything on the pitch. She can create a play on her own and cap it off with a goal, or take away a couple of defenders to create space for her teammates to hit them with an open pass.
Flores also brought up four freshmen to the varsity team to not only get playing time, but it added competition within the team. It also offers depth on the roster and time for the underclassmen to prepare at a higher level.
A trio of first-year players in freshmen Scarlett Gomez, Daisy Garcia and Jocelyn Juarez are already making an impact.
They also had Kylie Montañez, a senior, and sophomore Leilani Vazquez who decided to return after both players took a break last year.
Flores gives credit to the veterans for helping recruit more bodies to the team.
“We feel like they brought them back into the soccer program,” he said. “That just tells me that we’re doing all the right things and we’re creating an environment where the girls can thrive.”
Most of the girls on the roster including Leyva have been there since their freshman year. The upperclassmen recruited a new wave of youngsters ready to set up.
“People used to think that our soccer program was bad and that Watsonville High was better,” she said.
The program expanded after the Covid-19 pandemic, yet it hasn’t been easy for the Grizzlies. Especially after a new coach was brought onboard and people were still feeling strained.
Leyva mentioned players would show up just to be present and it didn’t quite feel like a team. The players didn’t fully buy in until Flores and his staff showed how committed they were to improving the program.
Part of that was figuring out the best solution to get in more than an hour of practice.
Flores’ coaching staff became more engaged with social media because they felt it was something the girls enjoy. He said this current generation likes to see themselves in the social media space, using it to let them shine and take ownership of what their team is.
“We want to be seen as one of the top programs in the area,” he said. “If not by the results, but also by the experience that girls are going to get by joining the PV soccer team.”
Pajaro Valley—which lost just one senior due to graduation—last season finished 7-6-3 overall.
They went 5-3-2 in the Pacific Coast Athletic League Cypress Division, finishing third behind Monterey and league-champion Soledad, which both qualified for the Central Coast Section postseason.
Flores feels they were a game or perhaps a goal away from capturing the league title over the Aztecs, who beat the Grizzlies, 4-3, at the Watsonville Wildcatz Tournament on Dec. 3.
Pajaro Valley also lost to Harbor and San Lorenzo Valley, which only encouraged Leyva and her teammates to work harder in the morning practices.
“We’re going to try our best to be able to get some results out of there,” Flores said. “And also just being able to win some games on the road.”
It’s been a challenge for Pajaro Valley to win away from the Grizzlies Den, where they’ve won 10 straight.
Things will only get more difficult after the Grizzlies along with Soledad were bumped up from the Cypress to the Mission Division, which is the second highest tier of the four divisions within the PCAL.
Leyva knows it’s going to be hard but it will also make them play better.
Pajaro Valley (5-3-1) has one league title under its belt after it won the PCAL Santa Lucia crown in 2019-20. It was also the last time they qualified for the CCS playoffs, losing to Salinas in the Division IV quarterfinals.
They’ll have to challenge Soledad (6-1-0) and standout junior striker Sophia Martel—who has 13 goals this season—once again for a shot at a league crown.
“They’re a really good team and they’re really nice to play against,” Leyva said.
Others in the mix include Carmel (1-2-1), North Monterey County (2-3-1), Pacific Collegiate (2-3-0) and Rancho San Juan (4-3-1) and cross-town rival Monte Vista Christian (1-4-2).
“It’s going to be a nice jump up, but for sure we’re going to be competitive,” Flores said.
The Grizzlies begin league action at home against Monte Vista Christian on Jan. 6 at 3pm.