The St. Francis High boys' soccer team is back to full strength with a full squad after some players were out due to injuries or illness. (Juan Reyes/The Pajaronian)

WATSONVILLE— The Saint Francis High boys’ soccer team struggled throughout the preseason to barely get just enough players on the pitch to begin a match.

It’s been quite the challenge for Sharks’ first-year coach Valentin Barrelleza, who saw roster numbers reduced to as little as eight players available to play.

“It’s been tough, mostly because we haven’t been able to play with the full team,” he said. “We only played one game, our first game, where we had a full team.”

Their roster is listed at 14 players. But due to a multitude of reasons including sickness and injuries, the Sharks were left with a fraction of what some other teams have available on the bench.

St. Francis (1-4, 0-1) is also under a new system with Berrelleza at the helm. 

Berrelleza—who was an assistant coach for 17 years under Watsonville High legendary coach Roland Hedgpeth—has had to alter the way he coaches his team during practice.

He’s focused on developing talent individually rather than collectively, especially that the Sharks often don’t have enough players for a full squad.

“Even practice has been tough, you can only do so much with the limited players I get,” Berrelleza said. “You have to adapt to focus on the individual development rather than the team tactic. With limited players, my focus now is individual defensive skill, passing, shooting, things like that.”

Junior center back Aaron Rocha-Diaz took the role of team leader this season and made it his responsibility to keep the team fighting every game.

With such an inconsistent roster, his voice and leadership is crucial to the rest of the team if they want to remain relevant in the Pacific Coast Athletic League Santa Lucia Division.

“We are using the mistakes in losses to motivate us to get better,” Rocha-Diaz said. “I try to keep putting my teammates up always, even if they make a mistake.”

Not only does he fill an integral role in the locker room, but he demonstrates his dedication to the team on the field as well.

Rocha-Diaz has been able to alleviate some of his coaches’ burdens.

“He’s my leader,” Berrelleza said. “I think he is the only player on our team that plays year-round.”

St. Francis kicked off the season with a 5-1 victory against Pacific Grove, but have suffered four consecutive losses including a 7-0 loss to Pacific Collegiate in league play. 

Their biggest defeat of the year came in a 9-0 loss against Harbor on Jan. 16, which actually turned out to be a bright spot for many of the players.

“Harbor has a massive team with a lot of good players,” Rocha-Diaz said. “It was hard to take the loss, but we had some key players out. Obviously the score didn’t show it, but we had some moments of hope.”

Harbor extended their lead in the second half, yet St. Francis hung in for most of the game despite a shortage of players on the pitch.

There is an end in sight however, as Berrelleza believes he will have enough players returning soon to make a substantial difference.

“I hope that little by little they start seeing what we can accomplish if we start showing up to practice, if we start all going to games and we put the work in,” he said.

The Sharks are hoping to bounce back following a 7-0 loss to Pacific Collegiate School in PCAL Santa Lucia Division play on Jan. 7. Others battling in the division include Anzar, Ceiba, Oakwood, Trinity and York School.

Although this season has been filled with ups and downs, many of the players are confident they will find a path to success.

Sharks players who have yet to return from injury and illness can’t come back soon enough.

With preseason behind them, every game matters more than ever moving forward.

“I think with enough players, we could definitely do very well in league,” Rocha-Diaz said. “Our coach puts in a great gameplan, he’s a great coach. He’s worked with us a lot individually to get us better.”

St. Francis will host Trinity Christian on Friday at 3:30pm.

Correction: An earlier version of this story noted that St. Francis had won two of their first five games including a 2-1 win over Soquel on Dec. 19 that snapped a three-game losing streak, which is incorrect. St. Francis does not play Soquel High this season.

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