It had taken 16 years and most of the 2012 season, but Northern California's Maria Carrillo High School had finally climbed to the No. 1 NSCAA fall girls national ranking late into last season. After opening its doors to freshmen and sophomores for the first time in 1996, Maria Carrillo's ascension from its inception to the top rung of fall high school soccer was among the quickest in national history.
Almost as soon as it happened, with four games left in the season, Maria Carrillo coach Debra LaPrath got an email from the coach of the team that knocked off the previous No. 1.
"We just beat the No. 1 team in the national rankings. Welcome to No. 1. Welcome to the curse."
"I read that to my team," LaPrath said. "They loved it. They were like, that's a cool challenge."
If there was a curse, Maria Carrillo found a way to sidestep its unforgiving glare. The Pumas took over the NSCAA No. 1 from Peabody (Mass.) for the first time on Oct. 23, and they held it through the end of the season by winning their last four games in style. The school's first national title coincided with a second consecutive North Coast Sectional title, a fourth consecutive North Bay League title and a 20-0-0 record. Over the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Maria Carrillo went 42-1-0, and the Pumas are currently 9-0-1 and ranked No. 4 in the latest NSCAA national girls poll.
"It was really special," said LaPrath, the only coach in the team's 17-year history. "These last two years have been really incredible."
Travel an hour north of San Francisco up the 101, past the snaking grape vines and rolling hills of Sonoma and Napa's wine row, and you'll hit Maria Carrillo's home in Santa Rosa. It's a small big city, flanked distantly to the west by the Pacific and to the east by the lush Annadel State Park and the Sonoma Mountains.
In 1996, Maria Carrillo was stuffed into this sleepy, picturesque valley for the first time. The school opened its doors to just freshmen and sophomores for its first year, but the talent level was so robust that LaPrath had them playing up with varsity squads from the jump.
"The first couple years we got beat up pretty good," LaPrath said through a laugh.
Maria Carrillo made the playoffs for the first time in 1998, and the Pumas haven't missed the postseason since. That year heralded the team's arrival on the state scene, which was a prelude to their start as a national power. Since 1996, LaPrath has guided Maria Carrillo to a 273-75-16 record, and last year's national title signaled a new high watermark for a program that's rocketed into the discussion from nowhere over the past decade.
Maria Carrillo's current roster is speckled with top talent, including super sophomore Madison Gonzalez, who's already committed to Santa Clara. The team largely plays together on the club level with Santa Rosa United, cultivating a team camaraderie that's been hard to split.
"Each year, we never go into it with the mindset that we're going to win," said senior defender Rachel Sellner. "We kind of give each other a reality check that teams change each year. We never really know who's coming in, who's leaving. So it's always different each year. But we also know what we want and are willing to work for it every single practice."
Team building is serious business inside the Maria Carrillo locker room. LaPrath, who teaches leadership when she’s not coaching, has been running what she calls pasta feeds every week during the season for the last 17 years. The night before the biggest game of the week, the team gathers at a house, eats and goes over everything from the week in school to the game to come. LaPrath hands out a folder to each player every year, where they keep a variety of writing assignments doled out by LaPrath. That includes a weekly visualization, where each player writes out something they want to happen in the upcoming game.
"From our freshman year we've been building up to being such a close team," said senior midfielder Hannah Ricker. "I think that all our bonding we've done, since we're so big on that, has basically led us to be the team we are now."
California's state-wide high school soccer system is a gnarled beast, stretching from August to May to encompass the massive amount of fragmentation at work. While a cluster of Northern California teams play in the fall, the majority of the state and all of Southern California either plays in the winter or the spring. In this sense, California is unique beyond comparison. It's the only state in the country to span all three high school seasons.
LaPrath does her best to schedule up as much as she can. Maria Carrillo put its ranking on the line earlier this season with a trip to face perennial national fall power Good Counsel in its house in Maryland in early September, which ended in a scoreless draw. But the school's tucked-away location combined with the fact that a majority of Southern California schools don't play in the fall makes scheduling outside of Maria Carrillo's section difficult. Plus, California doesn't have anything approaching a unified state title. The closest Maria Carrillo can get is to win the North Coast Sectional each year, which doesn't quite have the same ring as state champions.
LaPrath thinks that's a primary driver for why soccer in Northern California is often overlooked in favor of the East Coast in the fall. Another reason why the program was particularly proud of its No. 1 year-end national ranking last year.
"I feel like sometimes California compared to some of the East Coast areas that play in the fall, I think the East Coast gets a little more respect than we do at this level," LaPrath said. "I'm not sure how to pinpoint why that is. Maybe it's because they're all so close and they can play each other in the fall. Because we don't have a state title, as big as soccer is in this area, it doesn't feel like we get as much recognition."
The recognition has found its way to Maria Carrillo, which has become the biggest name in Northern California girls soccer over the past half-decade. That brings along its own challenges, namely keeping sharp when every team is gunning for your crown.
So far, so good.
"As the team that's the reigning champions, you have a lot of pressure because you have everything to lose whereas other teams have nothing to lose," senior midfielder Cami Rencken said. "Each game is kind of a challenge and you can't expect to win, because those are the games that you don't do well. Debra really encourages us to keep our feet on the ground."