Bolstered by a pipeline of former San Benito High standouts, the Hartnell College women’s soccer team is in the midst of a historic season.
The Panthers (20-2-5) have reached the California Community College State Final Four for the first time in program history and have been designated the top seed from the North. They will play the No. 2 seed from the South, Mount San Antonio College, on Friday, with the winner of that game advancing to the state championship match on Sunday, Dec. 5. All games will be held at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut.
“At the end of the season we’ll look back and think about all of our accomplishments, but right now our motto is try to win the next one so we can practice for the next game,” Panthers coach Ivan Guerrero said. “We just want to hang out one more day together—that is our motto and it’s worked. It’s not about the state title game, it’s about enjoying each other as long as we can.”
The Panthers advanced to the Final Four with a 3-2 win over No. 3 seed Sierra in a NorCal regional final on Nov. 27. At that point, Hartnell had already advanced further than any other previous team in program history. Former Haybalers standout Carly Lowi had a goal and two assists, Belinda Ascencio had a goal and assist, and Stephanie Castillo—another San Benito High product—finished with a score.
Six players who prepped at San Benito are playing for Hartnell, with Lowi, Castillo, Jada Taylor and Mayvene Molina playing a huge role in the team’s success. Lowi has been stellar with her goal-scoring ability. The sophomore forward has started all 23 games this season and leads the squad in goals (17), assists (11), points (45) and shots on goal (27).
For the second consecutive season, Lowi and Ascencio were named the Coast Conference South Division Co-Players of the Year.
“When you have two big-time players it’s about managing expectations and Carli has adjusted perfectly,” said Guerrero, who is in his 11th season at the Salinas community college and has built it into one of Northern California’s premier programs. “Her scoring might be a little down from her first year, but her play has been spectacular and her role on the field has grown.”
Lowi has notable offers from four-year programs and will take time to make her decision, Guerrero said. Taylor is the team’s center defender, captain and relentless on the field.
“Jada is kind of like the engine and heart and soul of the team,” Guerrero said. “She’s been a great mentor for the freshmen and the players alongside her. She’s been an anchor and everyone kind of follows her lead. She’s probably played 90 percent of the minutes of the entire season and rarely takes a break. She kind of makes everything work for us.”
Castillo is a center midfielder who is vastly underrated for the impact she has on the team.
“Stephanie is a crafty little player,” Guerrero said. “She’s someone that you may not notice the whole game, but once you take her out, her presence is missed.”
Molina is part of a potent forward rotation and has the ability to score goals on a moment’s notice. Offensive prowess aside, the team’s defense has been simply remarkable, posting 14 shutouts out of 23 matches.
“This team will go down as one of the best if not the best defensive team in the state in the past few years,” Guerrero said.
Guerrero realized many years ago that the best community college teams have tremendous depth, which is a hard sell to potential recruits because it means they have to sacrifice personal stats and minutes for team glory. However, the best coaches and programs stockpile talent because they’ve consistently won, and that’s the level Hartnell has reached.
“We knew those championship teams always carried 25-plus players,” Guerrero said. “No matter who went in, the rhythm, the tempo, the intensity, nothing changed for them. We knew we needed a lot of players this year and we’ve got 32. Some are redshirting, but they’re practicing, training and competing everyday. That is the only way to be at the highest level in junior college soccer.”
When Guerrero first took over the job 11 years ago, he knew he had to keep most of the best recruits in his own backyard of Salinas, an area rich with soccer talent. Once he established that, Guerrero started making a play for potential recruits just outside the Salinas perimeter such as Hollister.
He has built a relationship with longtime San Benito girls coach Becky Bonner, and there has been no shortage of Baler players experiencing success at Hartnell over the years.
“The best recruiting tool for us is the current players we have here,” Guerrero said. “They spread the word and let the other girls know that, ‘Hey, Hartnell is a good program.’ Once one person commits, a friend follows and it’s just a trickle down effect. They talk about their experience here and that has a huge impact.”
Guerrero is also starting to attract recruits from the South Santa Clara County area with the Gilroy schools. Eventually, the plan is for Hartnell to be a destination for players from the Morgan Hill schools as well.
Former Christopher High standout Jaden Carillo is one of Hartnell’s top freshmen midfielders and expected to have a huge impact next season.
“She’s one of the few freshmen we can trust coming off the bench,” Guerrero said. “She contributes key minutes and is ready to go.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected] and (831) 886-0471, ext. 3958.