LATHROP – There are no mixed signals when it comes to Gabe Padilla’s coaching style.
The first-year girls soccer coach at Lathrop High wants to play a physical brand of soccer, and he delivered that message during the first week of practice.
“Stuck,” Padilla yelled, stopping Friday’s practice to demonstrate a drill. “I want you to go after the ball and yell ‘stuck!’ ”
With the girls’ attention, Padilla positioned himself opposite one of his players. Between them sat a dead ball. Padilla and the player attacked the ball at the same time, screaming “stuck!” in an old-fashioned battle of wills.
Long the Valley Oak League’s bottom-feeder, Lathrop will scrape, claw and wrestle for respect under Padilla.
“We’ve got girls that are physical and aggressive,” said Padilla, who has had coaching stops at Linden and Bear Creek. “Now it’s about teaching them to be smart, physical and aggressive.”
Lathrop won’t be the most talented team in the Valley Oak League.
Padilla gets that.
East Union is the defending Valley Oak League champion and possesses a lineup capable of annexing a Sac-Joaquin Section championship.
The Lancers’ only blemish in league last season was a 2-2 draw with Kimball. They were later upset in the first round of the playoffs by Central Catholic.
“That team could go undefeated,” Padilla warned.
East Union will be pushed by its intra-city rivals Manteca and Sierra, both of whom made the playoffs last spring.
“The Valley Oak League is the toughest league in the section. You’ve got the same three or four schools battling it out every year – East Union, Sierra, Manteca, Oakdale and Sonora, though I hear they’re in a down year.”
Lathrop, meanwhile, hasn’t given its district foes reason to fear the Spartan.
The program is playing for its third coach in three years and is just 4-44-4 in three varsity seasons. The Spartans are 1-37 in league play, with its only win coming against a one-win Weston Ranch team last season.
They’ve been pushed around and overlooked.
Padilla hopes to change all of that. Step No. 1: Develop a mean streak.
“The other schools look at us and Weston Ranch (1-17-2 in 2012) as stepping stones. I don’t want this school to be known as a stepping stone,” Padilla said. “I want those schools to know that we’re going to give them a battle.
“I want them to bring a physical (style of) play. I don’t want them to be dainty. You’re going to get battered and bruised when you come play our way.”
The rub: Lathrop is saddled by inexperience.
The roster features 18 players – a healthy number for a young program – but only four play for a club team: juniors Stephanie Maduli and Sierra Downum, and sophomores Yaneli Avila and Callia Morales.
Maduli might be the Spartans’ craftiest player, while Downum was an all-Valley Oak League second-team selection a season ago.
Downum and junior Edna Magana have been named captains. Magana can play three positions – defense, midfield and goalie.
Padilla would like to add a third captain; a player with a vocal presence in games and on the practice field.
The Spartans open the season with back-to-back home matches on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 22-23, against Pacheco and Chavez, respectively.
“Honestly, I’m trying to get these girls to become fundamentally sound,” he said. “I’ve got a couple of girls with experience and play the game well. I’ve got a couple of girls that just started playing as freshman. And I’ve got a senior who hasn’t played since the sixth grade.
“There’s a mixture out here. They all have bad habits, and I’m here trying to crack those bad habits.”