Winless and in the playoffs, a look back at the Richmond Oilers girls’ soccer season

Richmond High School girls' soccer head coach Felipe Franco laughs on the sidelines with sophomore Yessenia Vasquez during an Oilers' home game. (Photo by: Stephen Hobbs)

Richmond High School girls' soccer head coach Felipe Franco laughs on the sidelines with sophomore Yessenia Vasquez during an Oilers' home game. (Photo by: Stephen Hobbs)

At halftime of the Richmond High School girls’ soccer team’s regular season finale against St. Joseph-Notre Dame High School, the conversation between the Richmond High coach and players was not focused on the game.

The Oilers had lost all 19 of their games so far in the season, in what had been a challenging and frustrating year. Unlike earlier matches, when the Oilers were down by scores of 4 or 6 to nothing, the game with the Pilots was tied 1-1. Combine that with the fact that the Oilers had scored the first goal of the match, giving them their first lead in a game all season, and the Oilers actually had a chance to win.

But instead, the topic of conversation was news that Richmond head coach Felipe Franco received a day earlier, when he had been trying to turn in his team’s home jerseys because he thought they were not needed for the rest of the season. Instead, he’d been notified that the winless Oilers had advanced to the Tri-County Athletic League playoffs. That meant that the players would need to hold onto their jerseys. It also meant the team had one more chance for a win.

With his players circled around him, Franco asked, “Are you guys having fun?”

“Yeah,” they responded.

“Are you guys ready for the playoffs?” Franco asked.

“Yeah!” they players said, much louder than before.

“First time ever!” Franco said as the group split up, some players heading towards the sidelines and the rest onto the field for the start of the second half.

Throughout the season, Franco and the players had embraced the fact that their season was not just solely based on winning, and they tried to make the best of the team’s performance and focus on smaller accomplishments. Sometimes the successes were achieved by individual players. Other times it was the total effort of the team.

There was the game when sisters Crystal and Stephanie Ochoa both scored goals against Mt. Diablo.

There was the game when Richmond goalkeeper Eleana Ellner, after being peppered with shots all season, and enduring games where opponents scored—or almost scored— goals in the double digits, shut down multiple shots from close range.

There had just been the goal that Maria Navarro scored in the first half of the St. Joseph-Notre Dame match, which gave the Oilers their first and only lead of the season.

And most of all, the team had bonded with each other. “We’ve all become really close and it’s great,” said freshman Rebecca Paz. “I mean, our bus rides are great. Even though we don’t win, it is fun.”

“Even though we are not the best team, I think we are so united and it is just fun to play with the team,” said senior Jacqueline Sanchez. “I like to be on a team. I like when people lean on me for something.”

But during that day’s match with St. Joseph, their excitement over going to the playoffs wasn’t enough to carry them through the second half. Two more goals from the Pilots gave them the 3-1 victory.

Franco had his arms crossed over his Richmond High School sweatshirt as he stood on the sidelines, looking onto the field in the game’s closing moments. “I’m impressed that sometimes they have the sprit to play,” Franco said. “These ladies keep playing, and it’s those things that make you want to be a coach.”

During Richmond’s postgame huddle, Franco praised his team’s performance, “Believe it or not, you guys did great today,” he said. “I saw a big improvement. Even though you lost 3-1, you guys did great.”

As for the players, the discussion was more about the excitement of the playoffs than about their 20th loss. Paz, who had just come off the field after shaking hands with the St. Joseph-Notre Dame players, said, “We are extremely excited. We didn’t get any wins this year, but hopefully we will get a win in the playoffs.”

***

Going into the season, the girls’ team faced a few problems: They lacked experienced players, and many of them did not have the conditioning to compete against teams for the full 80 minutes of a soccer match. Two members of the team are students at another campus, Middle College High School, and often their schedules meant they were not able to practice or play in games. Other girls had family obligations that also kept them out of practices and games as well. Combine all of these factors, and it made for a lot that Franco needed to address. “There’s a million things to fix,” Franco said. “It is complicated.”

But as the season developed, the losing streak became its own problem. As loses started to pile up for the Oilers, fewer players began showing up for practices and games as they lost the motivation to attend. Out of a roster of approximately 20 players, an average of five to six players showed up to each practice, making Franco often unsure of how many he would have. The cycle of losing produced more losing; junior captain Joselyn Cortez described it as the team’s “mentality to lose.”

During a practice session near the end of the season, more than a dozen girls showed up. But the high number of attendees was deceiving. The junior varsity team did not have practice that afternoon, so the group featured a mix of varsity players and devoted junior varsity players. Still, the JV squad out-drew the varsity.

Yessenia Vasquez, a sophomore and team captain on the varsity team, watched her teammates pass the ball in triangles. She was frustrated with how she and her teammates were performing, and said she plans to work with Franco to improve the team’s commitment level for the following year. “The most lacking thing is our trust and us trying, not being committed,” Vasquez said. “That’s what we need to work on; trying to get better, wanting to get better.”

Franco, too, had his own ideas for improvement. He hopes to focus more on conditioning at practices next season, and he already has started reaching out to the principal at Helms Middle School, the feeder school to Richmond High, to recruit players for the following year. “My dream is that one day we will be like the guys,” said Franco, referring to the Richmond High boys’ soccer team, which had more than 100 players try out for the squad and made it to the semifinals of last season’s North Coast Section playoffs. (This season they own a 14-3-5 record, before Thursday night’s match.)

The low attendance from players affected their results on the field.

During a match in late January, their final home match of the season, the Oilers faced off against the Mt. Diablo High School Red Devils, a team they lost to earlier in the season. In the first meeting between the two teams, Mt. Diablo took an early lead, and fought off a comeback attempt from the Oilers, for a 3-2 win. On paper, this matchup seemed like one the Oilers might have a chance to win; this time the game was being played at home, on the Oilers’ artificial surface, and it was against an opponent they had seen before.

It was a weekend, but 20 minutes before the start, Franco only had 12 total players of the approximately 20 on his roster. Among the missing were three of his best players. One of them was senior Jacqueline Sanchez, a student at Middle College High School, who plays soccer for the Richmond High team. Sanchez has a job, and was often unable to make practices and games that conflicted with her school and work schedules.

Also missing were fellow Middle College student junior Daisy Corona and Richmond High sophomore Evelin Dominguez. Both had family reunions and were unable to make it to the start of the match. Franco was especially concerned with not having Dominguez out on the field because of her speed, which sets her apart from her teammates.

The missing players meant that not only did Franco have to rearrange his players’ positions, but each player would have to stay on the field longer before Franco could substitute them in and out. Fifteen minutes before the match another Oiler player showed up, giving them only two substitutes at game time. A team filled with players who are not well-conditioned makes player fatigue a key issue for a coach. Add that to warm weather of the early-afternoon match, and the girls were in for a test of their stamina.

“That’s the way it goes,” said Franco, watching his team warm up. “It changes completely from one game to another. We don’t have continuity.”

Franco paused. “But what can you tell the parents?” he asked.

In the first half, the Oilers struggled. Mt. Diablo scored two goals and took a lead going into halftime. The Richmond players, sweating and breathing hard as they drank water out of Styrofoam cups, walked to their locker room for a team meeting.

When the team returned to the field, the players tried to re-focus for the final 40 minutes.  “We can do this—just play hard,” junior captain Maria Navarro said to her teammates.

Ten minutes into the second half, Dominguez came running onto the Oiler sidelines ready to enter the match. “I understand,” Franco said, as she explained why she was late.

They stood at midfield, waiting for the next stoppage of play for her to enter the match. When the time came, she sprinted onto the field.

Dominguez’s presence was felt right away; the Oilers looked more confident on defense, and the team’s offensive chances started to come more frequently. Junior Stephanie Ochoa scored to cut the Red Devils’ lead to 2-1.

The Oilers then put more pressure on the Red Devils by drawing a corner kick, and then a free kick, in Mt. Diablo’s half of the field. The Red Devils responded with another goal to take a 3-1 lead. Despite the Oilers’ rally in the second half the match ended with a final score of 3-2—the same score that Richmond lost to Mt. Diablo earlier in the season.

After the game wrapped up, Franco reflected on his team’s improvement when Dominguez entered the match. “As soon as she stepped on the field, I was like ‘My God!’ Even the ladies felt it,” Franco said. “It makes a difference when you have all of your players that are a little bit better than the other ones, because they become the leaders.”

But Franco had resigned himself to the fact that having all of his players together for the last two games in the regular season was not likely.

“We will try to, but we know that is going to be tough,” Franco said. “If I have the other two players, who are missing from Middle College, we can have a very decent game against Salesian and St. Joseph.”

“But that is if I get everybody. If I get all of my players,” Franco added.

***

Practice the following day was the same story. It was a holiday and only six players showed up from varsity, and three from the junior varsity team.

Despite the day’s low attendance, Franco did not take it as a sign that his players were giving up. “The ladies will miss it, believe it or not,” said Franco of the season’s end, “because they will have nothing to do.”

Cortez, who was passing the ball with Navarro, said she was not looking forward to the end of the soccer season. “We hate it during the season, but love it when it’s done,” Cortez said of playing soccer.

Later, Navarro spoke about how difficult the season has been for the team. “None of us played our [natural] position this year,” she said. “We try to make it positive,” despite the losses, she said.

“We like playing the sport,” added Cortez. “It is soccer. We have fun.”

But with only five players and one goalie, Franco could not run a full two-hour practice as he had planned. After passing, shooting, and ball control drills, he let them out early.

As he picked up the cones that he had laid out on the field for drills and walked over to the sidelines Franco said, “I don’t blame it on them.” He paused to reflect for a moment. “The losing, you can blame on me, yes. But they should blame it themselves for not showing up to practice,” he added.

His frustration seemed to dissipate. The early release from practice gave him more to “do my exercises and enjoy life,” he said. Franco took off to run around the field as the midday sun reflected off the artificial turf.

****

It was the night of the first round of the Tri-County Athletic League playoffs—the game that the players and coach had not expected to play. The Richmond girls were up against the Pinole Valley High School Spartans on that team’s home field, and they were warming up with keep-away drills with an intensity that hadn’t been felt at other games throughout the season.

An unrecognizably large number of girls were there for the Richmond squad. The Oilers had 16 players, 15 in the field and one goalkeeper. That meant the Oilers had five substitutes on the bench, giving Franco more opportunities to find the best matchups for his team.

The promise of the playoffs had also revitalized the team’s practices before the playoff game. “We had three really good practices,” said Franco before the match. It looked to be like the team was coming together just in time to secure its first win of the season.

Julio Franco, Felipe’s brother and also the principal at Richmond High, was one of the dozen of fans who made it over to Pinole Valley to support the Oilers.  “This is our win, let’s go!” he yelled from the sideline. “Come on Oilers!”

The match started out even in the first half. The Spartans were dictating the majority of the play, and were getting multiple chances on the Oilers’ goal. Saves by junior goalkeeper Eleana Ellner kept the game scoreless.

Because of the large number of players available, Franco was able to substitute more strategically. Just over 20 minutes into the first half, Franco subbed in junior Daisy Corona and senior Jacqueline Sanchez.

As Sanchez walked towards the sidelines, ready to enter what was likely her final game as a Richmond High soccer player, Franco took a moment to tease her. “If you don’t score,” he said, “this is your last game.”

And Sanchez played like it would be her final game. She sprinted towards the ball as it rolled out of bounds and tried to wrestle it away from her opponents.

Despite her efforts and those of her teammates, in the 29th minute, the Spartans scored first on a goal from Tanya Garcia. The Oilers trailed 1-0.

In the second half, the Spartans took a 2-0 lead.

Then Corona helped bring the Oilers back into the match. Playing the left forward position, Corona became the offensive threat that Richmond needed. She would wait for the right moment—a pass from a teammate into open space in front of her—to spring forward and sprint towards the goal.

In the 67th minute, Corona broke through, and scored. The goal cut the Spartans’ lead to 2-1 and the Oilers continued to apply pressure on the offensive end.

Minutes later, Corona had another opportunity to break for the goal, but drew a red card after she was taken out by a Pinole Valley defender. The infraction gave the Oilers an advantage of having 11 players on the field to the Spartans’ 10.

Just when it seemed like the Oilers truly had a chance, the Spartans’ Garcia scored another goal for her team. The final game of the girls’ soccer team’s season, ended as every match of the 2012-13 had ended: with a loss. Final score: 3-1.

But when the game ended, instead of tears, most of the girls had smiles on their faces. They hugged some of the Pinole Valley players that they knew. Then the Richmond players started hugging each other.

For Corona, her strong play was a highlight of the season. When asked how she was feeling after the game, she said, “Pretty pumped, because I used to play for them last year,” said Corona, of the Pinole Valley team. “So scoring a goal on them was an accomplishment.”

“We’ve been through a lot together, and losing, and this game,” she continued, referring to her own team. “If we lose, we don’t take it upon against each other, because it happens.”

Walking off the field after shaking hands with the Pinole Valley players, Sanchez choked back tears as she started talking about what the Richmond team for four years had meant to her. “I want to keep my jersey,” Sanchez said. “I am always going to have a Richmond High spirit. I feel like it’s part of me, and it’s going to be part of me for the rest of my life.”

With her other teammates making their way to the Oilers’ bus in the distance, Sanchez prepared for one last postgame bus ride with her team.

“It was a good season, even if we lost,” Sanchez said. “I love my team. I wouldn’t change them.”

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