Santa Rosa JC goalkeeper Chris Kelly, who prepped at Montgomery, practices on Thursday. (Photo by JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)
By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
After four consecutive shutouts, the Santa Rosa Junior College men’s soccer squad appears to be regaining form as a tough opponent.
A difficult home match with City College of San Francisco today will test Santa Rosa as the Bear Cubs bid for a return to the state playoffs following a rare absence last season.
“We’ve really tightened the defense. We know the goals will come,” said returning goalkeeper Chris Kelly, out of Montgomery High. “The chemistry is just better this year.”
Santa Rosa fielded a deep, skilled team last season, yet fell short of expectations. Ending a four-year run as conference champions, Santa Rosa missed the state playoffs for the first time under coach Marty Kinahan.
After redoubling recruiting and player development, Kinahan and his staff have a hard-working group that should improve as players gain experience together on the field.
“We had to expect more from our players. This year we’re tenacious,” said Kinahan, in his 14th season leading Santa Rosa.
Defense has been Santa Rosa’s strength early. After a scrimmages against Sonoma State and San Francisco State, the Bear Cubs were shut out at Mt. San Antonio, the three time defending California Community College Athletic Association champions.
Santa Rosa hasn’t been scored on in four matches since that season-opening loss.
“We’re defending really well. We have good fitness so we can all run around,” said Sergio Gutierrez, a forward from Anderson Valley High. “Attacking is the only thing we’re not good at right now. We don’t know each other. But that’s coming together.”
The defense is ahead of the goal scoring in part because the team’s few returning starters anchor the back line. In the middle are Cody Martin, from Orange County, and Justin Fowler, out of Cardinal Newman.
Midfield play has contributed to making scoring on Santa Rosa difficult. Speed and fitness help the Bear Cubs midfielders get back when not pushing the pace on offense.
Leading the effort to control the midfield are returner Octavio Estupian and first-year standout Keenan Whyte, both from Montgomery High.
“We’re working on communicating and playing together,” Estupian said. “We just have to get better every week.”
The offense will catch up with a dynamic duo up front. Gutierrez, a Sonoma State redshirt last season, is skilled and crafty with the ball. Kai Matas, a pleasant surprise from Hawaii, is athletic and tough in a crowd.
Perhaps the Bear Cubs’ greatest edge in games is durability. This season’s squad responded well to a greater focus on fitness.
“We weren’t fit last season. This year we’re winning games late,” Kinahan said.
Practices are harder than games. Players push to improve, Kelly said.
“The new guys are eager to get minutes,” Kelly said. “It’s a good competitive situation.”