For Ceres High School, the turning point came early -- on Sept. 17 to be exact -- when the Bulldogs found themselves on the losing end of a 3-1 decision at Oakdale.
It was only the seventh game of the long season, but the defeat forced Ceres to take a long, honest look at who it was as a team, and also where it wanted to go.
Team captain Luis Martinez took charge of the self-evaluation process.
"We had doubts because our team had a lot to give and wasn't giving it," Martinez said. "The loss to Oakdale really brought us down and we had to ask ourselves what was going on. But the loss ended up being a good thing. It brought our cockiness down and picked us up as a team."
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The Bulldogs were 4-2-1 after the loss, but went on to finish the season on a 13-1-2 streak. The loss and one of the ties was to Central Valley -- the crosstown rival Ceres had never beaten in eight tries.
That streak ended Nov. 14 when the Bulldogs' run to a Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 championship was capped by a 2-0 victory over the Hawks.
Martinez, who led Ceres with 25 goals during the season, did not score in the championship match. But there was little doubt he was the best player on the FieldTurf at Lincoln High that afternoon, as he was in the majority of his team's matches this season.
He was honored as the co-most valuable player of the Valley Oak League and now has been named the Modesto Bee's Stanislaus District Boys' Soccer Player of the Year.
"This guy, as a team captain, motivates the whole team," said Ceres coach Koeurn Phe. "You can see him out there as the leader, keeping the team focused -- before, during and after the game.
"They say that big players step up in big games, but Luis stepped up for us in every game, in the regular season and in the playoffs. He understands what it takes to win, and the dedication it takes to get there."
Martinez, named team captain in the preseason, took control of his team after that loss to Oakdale.
"As team captain, I had to do that," Martinez said. "I think it was a natural thing for me to, because whether I was captain or not I wanted the team to step up.
"If I wasn't out there trying hard nobody else was going to try. So if someone was slacking off I pushed them, and I think that's a natural ability I have."
The speedy 6-feet, 1-inch striker has been playing soccer since he was six, some of it under the guidance of his grandfather -- a former professional player in Peru. Martinez also has played with the Ceres Earthquakes club team, but left that side to concentrate on winning at the high school level.
He said the sacrifice was well worth it, especially when Ceres capped the season with the school's first triumph over Central Valley.
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"When I was on the junior varsity as a freshman we didn't beat Central Valley," Martinez said. "I've been on the varsity since my sophomore year and I had never been on the winning side of that game.
"It was like I had a needle stuck in me and I knew the championship game was going to be my last chance to pull it out. It feels so great to make history that way -- winning the section and beating our rivals in the last game of my senior season."
Martinez hopes to continue playing soccer in college, either at CSU Stanislaus or Modesto Junior College, and then continue playing with a club.
Perhaps somewhere on his soccer journey Martinez will have another experience like the one he enjoyed the afternoon the Bulldogs finally beat the Hawks.
"This whole season was unbelievable, incredible," Martinez said. "It's all because of the team and the coach.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, this was a 10 because of the way we worked as a team and stepped it up, and the way we came back in games."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.