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Replacing losses in back line key to TWolves contending
Sierra girls soccer coach Manuel Pires gives instruction to his varsity team during a practice on Monday, Feb. 11. - photo by James Burns

It’s been two years since the Sierra High girls soccer program last won a Valley Oak League championship.

But you’d never know it standing out on the practice field.

The pressure to win the talent-rich Valley Oak League is as great as ever.

“The pressure has always been on us – even when we haven’t won,” Pires said. “These girls come into our school and they want to be a part of a championship team.

“This senior class was a part of the section title team a few years ago. They know what that experience is like they want to bring it on again.

“They’re excited for the season to get started and ready to go.”

The Timberwolves have won 11 Valley Oak League championships and three section titles, but nothing since 2011.

That year, Sierra lost just one league game – a 3-2 decision to Oakdale – but four ties knocked them into second place behind a two-loss Mustang club.

The Timberwolves avenged that loss in the Division IV final, topping their conference rival 3-2.

“Nobody thought that was a team that could win the section title,” Pires said. “The girls stepped it up and came through in the end.”

“Step up” may as well be Sierra’s mantra this spring.

East Union (13-0-1, 19-2-3 overall) is a strong favorite to win its second consecutive VOL title, while Manteca (9-3-2, 16-7-3) reintegrates forward Sammy Morris (51 goals in 56 games) onto a team that finished one game short of a section final berth.

Meanwhile, graduation has left the Timberwolves (8-3-3, 12-6-5) vulnerable along the backline.

All-Valley Oak League performers Ashley Sohal and Lia Unterholzner anchored a defense that gave up the third-fewest goals in league (19).

Problem is neither one can be found on Pires’ back-lot practice field. Both were seniors. And both will be sorely missed.

Sohal was the center back – the very last defender – and an all-VOL first-team selection.

Unterholzner was named to the second team after recording 12 shutouts and 79 total saves. The Biola University freshman had a .0876 goals against average.

Pires hasn’t picked their successors. Instead, he suggested there may be an open competition right up to the season opener against Tracy on Feb. 26.

“With high school soccer, every year there are changes,” Pires said. “Different players come in and some are better prepared than others. This is a new challenge for us.

“Every position down the middle of the field, from the front to the back, is important and critical. … That’s where a lot of our game starts – from the back – so it’s very important.”

Pires will insulate the new with the old. He returns a group of veteran defenders headlined by senior Patricia Angel, senior Tori Iniquez, junior Megan Gonsalves and junior Daisy Rivera. All four appeared in 21 or more games last season.

Rivera was an all-VOL second-team pick.

A fifth that may see extensive action is junior Kendal Riley, who was called up for Sierra’s playoff run last spring.

Pires hinted that the void between the pipes will be filled by a freshman. He has two currently competing for time.

“We do have some options. It’s just a matter of time; to see how they’ll fill those holes,” Pires said. “We have players to work with. We’ll have to see how the games go. Everybody starts the same. The standings are the same when the season begins.”

But the pressure and expectation to win aren’t. The sting of last spring’s failures has stuck with Pires.

Needing a win in the season’s final game to draw even with Manteca in the league table, Sierra drew even with Oakdale.

Twelve days later, in a D-IV quarterfinal, Sierra has eventual champion Vista del Lago on the ropes.

“We actually led in that game, too,” Pires said of a 2-1 defeat. “A lot of those girls are coming back and know that feeling.”