Long before Dennis Bishop pulls out the soccer balls and goalie nets, he takes Turlock High's girls soccer team into the weight room to work out.
The veterans, Bishop says, are familiar with the routine and start training. Many first-year players, though, wonder what they are expected to do.
"Lifting weights to prepare for soccer, it's a new idea to a lot of girls," he said. "One of the first things we do is introduce girls to the equipment."
Conditioning begins in the fall and Bishop's goal is to get the Bulldogs at 90 percent of their expected fitness level before the first shot on goal. His well-conditioned squad is usually stronger, faster and more durable than the competition -- and the results prove it.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
Turlock has won four Central California Conference titles in a row, and is in first place again this season. It's 52-2-3 in conference games the last 4½ years, 98-15-9 overall and has outscored opponents 450-99.
"It comes from a lot of running the football bleachers, lifting and making sure we're strong before we start playing," said Bishop, in his 10th year as head coach. "Once the girls learn how to use the machines, they start to enjoy it."
Turlock has advanced to at least the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 quarterfinals the last four years, and lost 1-0 to St. Francis in the 2008 final.
"It's easier to convince the new girls because they see the results," said Bishop, whose lone blemish this year is a 1-1 tie with rival Merced. "It's not all about weight training, though. We've got more girls playing travel ball and we promote our program on campus quite a bit, too."
Bishop also credits junior varsity coach Dustin Christian for the program's growth. Christian has had the job for six years, and often sees the elite freshmen and sophomores go right to the varsity.
"It's crucial the lower-level program is stocked because we've got holes to fill each season on the varsity," said Bishop, who has seven seniors on his roster. "Dustin and I have the same ideas, so there are no surprises when I get those girls coming to the varsity."
Defender Cassidy Costa is one who went directly to varsity as a freshman and she has been one of Bishop's best the last four years.
"She does a great job organizing the defense," said Bishop, whose 'Dogs have allowed 13 goals in 13 matches. "She's very physical and very calculating. She plans her personal defense and also organizes the defenders around her."
Freshman Nicole Larsen has slid into a role alongside Costa, helping Turlock hold 10 of its foes to a goal or less.
The big change on defense, though, is the emergence of Andrea Rosas in the goal. Her performance in practice gave Bishop the confidence to take sophomore Macie Ireland out of the goal and put her at midfield, where Turlock can better exploit her athleticism.
"Andrea makes good reads and she'll come out of the box to clear a ball if she sees the opportunity," said Bishop. "I see a lot of improvement and she'll continue to get better as she has more time in goal."
The story on offense is Sara Latham, with two hat tricks in six CCC matches. She had a career-high four goals in a 6-2 win over Buhach Colony.
"Sara's aggressive in front of the goal. She doesn't waste time if she has the ball in the box," said Bishop, whose club has outscored foes 46-13. "We like to play aggressive, which gets back to the need for us to be in shape. We like to think that we can outrun anyone."
Bee staff writer Richard T. Estrada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2300.