Phillip Jaramillo was ready for anything when he sent his overmatched Enochs High soccer team into its first varsity match two seasons ago.
The Eagles had no seniors, no tradition and no idea what to expect as they entered the Modesto Metro Conference.
"The toughest thing about starting the program was having young athletes who were going to have to compete with girls three to four years older," he said. "That first year we didn't win a single game in the first round of league."
The Eagles adapted quickly — catching fire late in the season and reaching the playoffs their first year — and have become the MMC's premier program just two years later.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
The Eagles (12-1-1 in conference) celebrated their second straight conference title Tuesday and will open the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 1 playoffs at home on May 14. The regular season ends today, as Enochs hosts Davis.
There are five seniors who recall taking the field for that first match: Kayla McCain (goalie), Jessica Nila (sweeper), Marissa Soria (forward), and Anita Nava and Samantha McCauley (midfielders).
They lost their first playoff game in 2008, but reached the semifinals last year before losing to powerful St. Mary's.
They didn't realize it at the time, but their success would soon attract others to soccer. The interest has increased each year, said Jaramillo, who tries to keep 22 players on the varsity and JV rosters.
"It may seem like a lot, but it is important to developing a program," he said. "It coincides with the role athletics has in providing a place for students to develop a sense of belonging and to feel more connected with their school."
It required more than effort and interest to move so quickly from the bottom to the top.
"About two-thirds of our girls play (travel ball)," said Jaramillo, referring to the ultra-competitive circuit of private teams. "(It's) a big plus. They play year-round against girls with similar ability and it keeps them conditioned."
Conditioning is crucial for the possession-style game being taught by Jaramillo. He is counting on defenders to tire as they chase after the ball — and he wants his girls ready to pounce on any opportunity.
Marissa Soria (18 goals, 6 assists), Kayla Davis (13 goals, 10 assists) and freshman Kirsten Coleman (14 goals, 4 assists) are typically up front.
The Eagles can throw additional players into an attack because they've got sweeper Jessica Nila and a quality defense. Enochs has yet to allow more than a goal in a match.
"Jessica's ball skills are superb, but her biggest strength is her ability to read her opponents, always staying one step ahead," Jaramillo said.
There are some benefits to starting a program with underclassmen, Jaramillo said.
"The advantage to having so many returning players is their ability to work with each other and familiarity with my style," he said. "It helps putting together a team that plays well together with the short amount of time between tryouts and league."
It also never hurts when a veteran falls into your lap.
Davis has played travel ball for years, but was attending a charter school. She came to Enochs for her senior year, in part so she could play soccer.
"Her strength is her aggressiveness. She is pretty much fearless," Jaramillo said.
If there is a player who symbolizes the gains the program has made, it's probably Soria.
"Extremely quick, a very nice shot, never gives up," Jaramillo said. "Marissa has grown faster and stronger since we first met her freshman year and she continues to amaze me more each day."