CARLSBAD — Their season started with humble goals and a new coach. However, the Sage Creek High School boys soccer team broke through and ended the year as champions.
A blazing start to the season, met with a dose of reality in the brutal Avocado West league, was enough to catapult the Bobcats into the Division IV playoffs. Once in, Sage Creek ran the table, culminating with a 4-1 win over Central (El Centro) to capture the program’s first-ever CIF San Diego Sectional title.
But midnight struck days later as the Bobcats fell, 6-1, to Desert Mirage in the first round of the CIF Southern California Regional tournament.
“My expectations coming in (as a first-year coach) was to win a game or two and to make it as far as we did is pretty awesome,” Sage Creek head coach Neal Keith said. “I think that comes down to our senior class and the leadership and wanting it.”
Sage Creek also picked up its first-ever regular season tournament title, winning the elite division at the SoCal High School Classic.
But the work and goals started well before then, Keith said. His primary goal was to bring back the joy of playing. Once the players became familiar with his style, his next goal was to win one league game, a feat the program had never done in its three-year history.
Well, the kids delivered, racking up nine wins in their nonconference schedule and finally broke through in one of the toughest leagues in the state. Sage Creek netted a 2-1 victory over San Dieguito Academy, and just managed a 1-7-2 record, although the Bobcats went 10-10-4 on the season.
“I tried to frame it as a positive as a lot of teams in the United States don’t get to play against a Torrey Pines,” Keith said. “We tried to take each game and make smaller goals or achievable tasks in those games, rather than go out and lie to ourselves that we are going to beat Torrey Pines.”
The team was sparked by a talented senior class lled by Kevin Cooke, Daniel Moran, Aleksander Bejarano and Sean Park. Cooke led the club with 10 goals, Gavin Goddard added five and Moran tallied four with six assist.
Sophomore Titus Washington added four goals and nine assists. Bejarano and Park were the defensive stalwarts, Keith said, and one reason for the Bobcats’ dramatic improvement.
In net, Owen Damitz tallied 16 saves in the CIF sectional final, while Jacob McKibben had 12 saves in the regional loss.
The first-year coach, though, said he is ready to continue the program’s climb up from the bottom. Next season will be more of a challenge as the Bobcats are expected to move from Division IV to Division II or III for the postseason.
The CIF moves schools into different divisions based on playoff performance, and not matching similar schools in their respective leagues. And since Sage Creek won a sectional title, it is all but guaranteed they will run a tougher gamut next year.
Still, it doesn’t scare Keith as he said the quality of the league will prepare the Bobcats. With the likes of national powers Torrey Pines, Canyon Crest Academy, La Costa Canyon and Carlsbad, the intense competition is the best method to prepare for better playoff challenges.
The Bobcats do lose 10 seniors and five starters, but have 15 underclassmen and juniors returning.
“A big majority of our team is coming back, so that is something we can use to build,” Keith said.