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Spartans make small strides under Padilla
Lathrop soccer 2
Lathrop coach Gabe Padilla has enjoyed a few more luxuries this spring, including the benefit of 13 returning players and an entire offseason to work with. Last year, he was named coach two days before the conditioning period began. - photo by JAMES BURNS/Bulletin file photo

LATHROP – History has followed Gabe Padilla’s arrival on the Lathrop High campus, but even the second-year soccer coach understands they are but small steps in a long climb.

The Spartans set a new school record for wins in Padilla’s first season with four. When they topped Stagg and West in consecutive games during the 2013 preseason, it was the program’s first-ever winning streak.

Last week, the Spartans mauled Modesto Christian 7-0, establishing new marks for goals by a single player (four) and shots (40) in a game.

“The girls have found something that works for them,” Padilla said. “They want to get better. We’ve finally got some people in the right positions, but we’re still working out some kinks, too.”

Padilla is encouraged by the progress and potential he sees in matches and on the practice field. His team is blessed with experience; 13 players return from a team that played above its 4-19-2 record, including all-league forward Sierra Downum.

Padilla has also had the luxury of a full offseason. Last year, he was named the head coach just two days before the start of the conditioning period.

“I didn’t get to do what I wanted as a coach,” he said. “Now I got a full offseason and stuff to build on.”

Though his confidence runs thick, Padilla stops short of any bold predictions this spring.

The Valley Oak League is teeming with sharks – read: East Union, Manteca and Sierra – and the young, upstart Spartans are still very much a guppy in the championship race.

He gets that.

Still, this guppy has some bite. Lathrop is off to a 2-2-1 start and will open league play at home against East Union, a team it held scoreless for about 30 minutes last season.

“The girls need to start believing in themselves. They have to have that same confidence in their skill level as I do,” he said. “Once they do that, they’ll start enjoying success.

“We’ve had some flashes of being sold in some of these big games – frustrating Sierra at times and keeping East Union scoreless for 30 minutes. To some, that might not be a big deal, but to me it is.

“When you look at the past matchups with East Union, you’d see scores like 9-0 and 10-0. The team would get down on themselves, but when you show those flashes you know you’re making the other team work.”

Downum has been at the center of the cultural shift within the program. At the very least, she is responsible for Lathrop’s 4-5-1 formation.

Downum suggested it to Padilla after being exposed to it a camp.

Padilla, who has had coaching stints at Linden and Bear Creek, was skeptical. He was comfortable with the 4-4-2 and wasn’t sure if he had the personnel to maintain the 4-5-1’s attacking style.

“They really wanted to give it a try,” he said, “and offensively, we just clicked. We kept it going and kept building on it.”

Lathrop unveiled the new formation – with Downum as the lone target player – in a 2-0 victory at Pacheco on March 4.

In that match, the Spartans reeled off 14 first-half shots.

Since then, Lathrop has outscored its opponents 11-2, including that free-for-all against Modesto Christian.

Downum is leading the charge. The senior forward has a team-high five goals, four of which came against the Crusaders, and two assists.  By comparison, she had just three goals and two assists in 23 games last year.

Midfielders Stephanie Maduli and Yaneli Avila each have three goals and an assist.

Now comes the hard part. Lathrop faces an uphill climb right out of the gates, beginning with the vaunted Lancers – 2013’s top-seeded Division IV club – on Thursday.

“It’s up to the girls to show their character,” said Padilla, who was disheartened by their first-half performance in a loss to Edison on Monday.

Lathrop closes the month of March with games against Tracy and River Valley at the Vern Gebhardt Cup this weekend and VOL battles with Sonora, Manteca, Oakdale and Weston Ranch.

“You don’t get any days off in the Valley Oak League. I’m telling you that right now,” Padilla said. “You have to be ready to play every game.

“Every school has had some all-leaguers and key players that go bye-bye, but their (frosh-soph) programs are good and they replenish themselves.

“Our school … we have to start building from the bottom.”