Lathrop is coming off a respectable fourth-place finish in the Valley Oak League.
Considering only the top three finishers made it into the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs, Lathrop and its then-first-year head soccer coach Lenny Lial were on the outside looking in.
This fall, after Lathrop graduated a heavy load of seniors, the Spartans and their veteran second-year coach will be looking to four upperclassmen who are all returning with varsity experience to lead the charge.
They also have two talented senior goalies in Erik De Leon and Masseeh Khairzada.
“The issue is how deep we will be,” said Lial, who coached for 13 years at Golden Valley in Merced before heading Lathrop in 2012. “We had a lot of juniors try out and some made the team. We didn’t have a great (frosh-soph) team last year, but those who made the team worked hard to improve and are pretty solid.”
Lathrop went 5-2-7 in league play, 11-4-7 overall. The Spartans’ Achilles’ heel was the draw.
Despite Lathrop closing the season with three straight victories, it tied East Union twice, Weston Ranch, Oakdale and Manteca.
The Spartans held leads in a few of those contests as well, leaving a bitter taste for the top four returners Ramiro Ceja, Ulyssess Almanza, Drew Erwin and Felipe Gomez.
Gomez is a standout forward who led the team in goals during his sophomore campaign.
“Last year, going into the season we felt we could be good,” Lial said. “We wanted to be competitive every game and we were. We were never blown out and only lost two (VOL) games.
“We had a lot of ties. There were games where we had the lead and let it slip away. We were ahead of Manteca High with two minutes left and they tied us with a header. That could have been the difference between us going to the playoffs and not.”
Lathrop has a battle for starting goalie between De Leon and Khairzada this summer.
The two seniors were both competitive last year behind graduated goalie Omar Guzman.
Khairzada recently injured his knee, leaving De Leon the frontrunner.
“We lost a very good goalkeeper (in Guzman)” Lial added. “But now the two seniors are vying for the job, and it’s a good competition. They’ve been back and forth and pushing each other for playing time. The whole team believes in both of them, and that’s a good position to be in. Most teams wish they had one good goalkeeper.”
Seniors Alex Barrera and Vicente Lopez will be two of the Spartans’ four new notable newcomers. Juniors Estevan Lopez and Jose Castellanos are the other half.
Last season, Manteca, Sierra and Oakdale were the top three placers that made it to the playoffs.
Coach Lial expects Manteca and Oakdale to be in this year’s playoff hunt, again.
“Our goal is to be more aggressive, attack, but still play good defense,” Lial concluded. “But we we’re not going to get into that position where we let wins slip away.
“I think we’ll be in the thick of it this year, too. We’re a good, hard-working group. It’s a different team, but they still have the same drive and mentality and work hard. They’re good kids on and off the field. I think we’ll be in most games this year, and we won’t get blown out by anyone.”
On Saturday, Lathrop will open its season at the Hughson Husky tournament. Next Wednesday, the Spartans will be on the road at Linden at 6 p.m.
Lathrop’s VOL opener will be Sept. 17 at home against Sierra.
To contact John-Joel Griffiths, e-mail email@example.com.