This piece was originally published on SFExaminer.com and in the newspaper's Sunday print edition.
SAN FRANCISCO — In light of the recent fire in Butte County, many schools have put the kibosh on outdoor activities after school due to the air quality.
This week, the St. Ignatius boys’ soccer team has been running rondos and conditioning drills in the basketball gym under the watchful eye of coach Alan Downey. The Wildcats didn’t earn national respect and three trophies last season by relying on idle thoughts.
“We can’t waste a day,” said Downey, whose Wildcats open the season No. 1 in our inaugural Top 10 rankings after going 19-1-5 and sweeping the West Catholic Athletic League, Central Coast Section Open Division, and Northern California Regional titles in 2018.
“This success didn’t happen overnight,” Downey said. “We’ve been changing the culture and instilling confidence in players to believe in themselves. Five years ago, our goal was just making the playoffs. Then it was going back to the playoffs, and each year the results were getting better. We won the league. But when they introduced this NorCal competition, we had a new dream to win all three championships.”
Downey, who received California Coach of the Year honors from the United Soccer Coaches Association this past weekend, also credits the local youth clubs for his program’s ascent, especially considering the turnover high school programs face due to graduation.
“We lost 10 of our players, and most of them attacking players from a group that won the league and set the goal-scoring record,” he said. “A lot of people thought we were rebuilding.
“But about two years ago, you started to see some really talented players coming in. The quality of development in San Francisco has really helped, with the youth clubs here becoming more established and playing at a high level regularly. They’re coming in more prepared to play right now.”
Offensive focal points like WCAL Forward of the Year David Woodruff have graduated, but Downey lauds his players’ versatility as being essential in sustaining the heights achieved in recent seasons.
“We proved last year that don’t have to play one way,” Downey said. “We constantly change things on the fly depending on situations. Last year, we went from a high-pressing, swashbuckling team, going for your throat from the get-go, to a more defensive, patient, counterattacking team. That’s why we like guys who play more than one position.”
Midfielder P.J. Rich certainly fits the bill. At 5-foot-7, Rich is small in stature like former SI-turned-Cal forward Dylan Penn, but is an energetic terror for opponents no matter where he is on the field.
“I think I’ll be needed more in defensive midfield, moving the ball and switching the tempo, but I’ll play anywhere they need me, whether it’s on the right or even centrally,“ Rich said.
Another player to watch is central defender Sean Bilter, who is committed to UC Davis. When he joins the Aggies next season, he is slated to compete for the spot vacated by Roy Boateng, who currently stars for the Glens’ USL League 2 franchise and is likely to be drafted by an MLS team in January.
“Sean has started since he was a sophomore and anchored the whole defense,” Downey said. “He’s so athletic and understands the game so well that we can play free at the back. The fact that he’s already committed, we expect him not to be distracted.”
Bilter concurs: “Mentally we’re ready to go from the preseason, and I think it’s because our guys get along so well together. The target was on our back last year and we were still able to win, so we hope to do it again this year.”
The man calling the shots from the sideline expects no less amid the would-be challengers to the Wildcats’ crown.
“I know I’m sticking my neck out there saying this, but we’re in a good position to repeat,” Downey said. “The word on the street is that Bellarmine are back. They will be chomping at the bit to get after it again, but we don’t care who’s out there; we’ll be difficult to beat.”
SAN FRANCISCO BOYS SOCCER PRESEASON TOP 10
SAN FRANCISCO GIRLS SOCCER PRESEASON TOP 10