Kassandra Ceja could have enrolled at Sierra as an incoming freshman, joining a cast of talented players on a girls soccer program long established as one of the best in the region.
Instead of reuniting with good friend Jadyn Shinn, she decided to pen her own story at a newer school closer to home. The now-junior at Lathrop High and Sierra's all-time leading scorer were previously teammates on the Ajax United and Manteca FC high-comp clubs before going their separate ways.
Ceja currently plays for FC Elk Grove while Shinn is with the San Jose Earthquakes Academy, and their paths have crossed as opposing forces on rival schools.
This past winter, they led their schools to historic seasons and were among the most prolific scorers in California. They're the Manteca Bulletin's 2018-19 All-Area Co-MVPs.
“It would have been cool to play with her again, but I felt like Lathrop was the place to go,” Ceja said. “Jadyn has done a great job at Sierra — I've never seen anybody like her. She's a phenomenal player. It feels good to share this with somebody I have so much respect for.”
Bound for Cal, the much-decorated Shinn is All-Area MVP for a third straight year and earned her second consecutive All-Valley Oak League MVP honor this past winter. She finished with 47 goals and 23 assists for 117 points, which ranked her No. 4 in the state, according to MaxPreps. Shinn goes out as Sierra's program record holder with 154 goals and 73 assists.
While it's common for players of her caliber to not compete for their high school teams, Shinn said she relished every moment of her four-year career.
“These four years were probably the best four in my soccer career — I really enjoyed playing for my school and in an environment where a lot of people support you,” Shinn said. “It's cool to play for something other than yourself.
“It went by really fast, which is really sad. Soccer takes up such a small period of time every year but it was all worth it.”
Shinn led Sierra to three VOL championships in a row and two Sac-Joaquin Section final-round appearances. After coming up short three straight years, she finally got to clutch the SJS' blue championship banner thanks to her overtime goal in the 84th minute of the Timberwolves' 2-1 victory over Vista del Lago — the same team that beat them in the Division III championship two years prior. It's Sierra's fifth section title.
“It's one of those feelings you don't get too often,” Shinn said. “It was crazy, and to do it against a team that we lost to in the section championship two years earlier was amazing. I couldn't have done that without my team.”
Sierra wasn't done yet.
The Timberwolves got to compete in the CIF Northern California Regional Championships for the first time. Shinn netted the last of her 154 career goals in a 3-0 first-round win over Chico, and Sierra (28-3-2) set the program record for most single-season victories.
Two days later, the second-seeded T'wolves were knocked off by eventual NorCal champion Branson 1-0 in the Division III semifinals.
Three months before that, Shinn and Ceja got to tangle one last time.
Ceja and Lathrop moved from the VOL to the Western Athletic Conference this year, and they had an early test against their familiar foe in Sierra. Ceja scored both of her team's goals, but the Spartans lost 3-2 with Shinn accounting for one goal and an assist for Sierra.
“It sucks not getting to play with her again, but playing against her is just as fun,” Shinn said of Ceja. “Kassie is a super special player. She reminds me of a girl version of (Lionel) Messi — she can get through defenders and is really creative and tricky. She's a super fun player to watch.”
Ceja didn't envision herself as a state leader in goals scored during that Nov. 28 meeting at Sierra.
Her focus was to lead Lathrop into postseason for the first time.
“That was my goal at the beginning of the season, to make Lathrop history,” Ceja said. “It was honestly a great team effort.”
She had a little do with it.
Ceja ended up tied for most goals scored in the state with 61, sharing the distinction with Fresno Christian's Rylee Schwab. Fifty-four of those tallies came against WAC competition, and she was named all-conference MVP two years after earning the same honor as a freshman in the more competitive VOL.
“Honestly, I just scored to try and give us a comfortable lead so we can work on stuff that we can't normally work on in practice,” Ceja said. “I didn't even know how many I scored until somebody would say it the next day. I never kept track of how many goals I was scoring.”
The Spartans finished 11-8-1 and took third in the WAC to clinch a spot in the SJS Division IV playoffs. They got to host their first-round game but were defeated by Dixon, 4-1.
Ceja is still undecided on where to play in college but has made several visits to Division I universities. She still has one more year to add to her already-impressive high school resume.
“This being our first year in a new league, it was cool to see different teams in the area and how they play,” Ceja said. “I think now we know what we are up against so we can bring more tactics.
“(WAC champion) Beyer is a very good team and beating them won't be easy, but it's something we can strive for. Next season we hope to make it even further in the playoffs.”
Co-MVPs: Jadyn Shinn, Sierra, Sr.; Kassandra Ceja, Lathrop, Jr.
Bulletin’s Best XI
FW Jasmine Mejia, East Union, Sr.
FW Tiana Cello, Sierra, So.
MF Aubree Pelon, Ripon, Jr.
MF Ariana Scholten, Ripon, So.
MF Taylor Campbell, East Union, Jr.
MF Yasmin Ballew, Sierra, Sr.
MF Caitlyn Wong, Manteca, Fr.
DF/GK Callie Crain, Sierra Sr.
DF Bella Castro, Sierra, Jr.
DF Kierra Chavez, Ripon, Jr.
GK Malia Allen, East Union, So.