Win or lose Wednesday at Granite Bay in a Sac-Joaquin Section semifinal game, credit Davis High for turning a hand-wringing beginning of 2012 into what has become championship-style soccer.
The sudden retirement of boys coach Ashley Yudin came just weeks before the season opener.
The Blue Devils were inherited by interim coach Alex Park, and the locals found themselves struggling early to identify the right combinations — while trying to make sense of the loss of their longtime mentor.
Lucky for DHS, it has three veteran captains who had spent time with Park at the junior varsity level.
While that trio — Derek Pleasants, Lee LeVerrier and Kian Bagheri — eschew the credit for the marked turnaround, Park is quick to point out how important their contributions have been.
“Any coach would be proud to sit alongside of these three young men,” Park told The Enterprise. “Each one has demonstrated their passion for the game, excellent playing ability and ability to lead the team to success.
“During my debut year coaching the varsity squad, I learned as much from them as I hope they learned from me.”
Davis — a win over Granite Bay away from the school’s eighth title tilt (of which it has won six) — started the campaign sloooowly.
After 10 games, the defending CIF champs were 5-3-2. There was a power outage as the Devils struggled to score goals. Losing the area’s top player (Ryan Gross) and five key seniors to graduation had left myriad holes in the lineup. DHS had a new coach and was the target of everyone it played; all wanted a chance to beat the champs.
Since then, Davis is 9-1-3, co-champs of the Delta Valley Conference, handed McClatchy (18-1-2) its only defeat of the year last week in the playoffs and avenged a 1-0 early-season loss to Napa by sending the Indians home, 6-0, in the section’s opening round.
A 4-0 setback to the nation’s No. 3 team — Jesuit — has been the only speed bump since DHS got its swerve back down the stretch.
Bagheri thinks it’s a renewal of “that hunger … and our renewed ability to finish our chances.”
“Since sections began, our level of play has increased exponentially,” the midfield whiz offered. “We’ve been working on finishing our chances since the start of the season, and it’s finally starting to pay off.
“All of us seniors know what it’s like to win a section title … that gives us the extra impetus to go back and win it again. Winning the section title last year was the best moment of my life.”
Bagheri, who can score with the best of them, has become one of the area’s better providers this fall. But he isn’t the only one who has had to make adjustments for the Devils.
LeVerrier, who started out as a key ingredient of DHS’ rock-solid back defensive formation, had been seeing more action at midfield and some at forward. But Park recently has used the speedy senior sparingly.
“We want him to come along slowly,” the coach explained, noting LeVerrier’s back problems. “He is a key for us in the playoffs.”
LeVerrier said, while his back isn’t 100 percent, “I should be able to play the whole game against Granite Bay … and hopefully Jesuit (in the finals).”
LeVerrier, who says he is most comfortable at center-mid, believes the cornerstone of the 2012 Devils is “we have become a strongly connected team. Of course, the beginning of the season was a little stressful, but we pulled together and are starting to show our true colors.”
The retirement of Yudin, LeVerrier adds, had a deep personal effect on him and other players: “But we respected his decision and fought through it. Kian, Derek and I have done our best to be leaders and inspire … (but) we can’t take personal credit for anything.”
Pleasants, a brilliant goalie who hopes to continue his playing days at a California college, believes everyone knows their roles now.
“At the beginning of every year, everyone is fighting for a spot, but as time progresses, everyone becomes teammates and tries to help each other succeed,” Pleasants explains, adding that is where the Blue Devils are now — teammates.
Despite the sudden coaching change, the second-year captain felt Park’s ascension made the transition less painful: “Alex fit right in. Many of the players have known Alex from previous teams and JV, so for many of us it was an easy adjustment.”
Pleasants reflected on his backup Andres Olmedo’s penalty-kick save against Napa as a sign of how deep talentwise (and connected) are these Devils.
“(Andres) not only saved a PK, he continued to play great throughout the game,” the regular netminder explained. Pleasants had been yellow-carded just before the PK on a penalty in the box with the score 2-0 early in Davis’ 6-0 win. Most observers agreed with Pleasants that the save turned the playoff game into a rout.
LeVerrier, an accomplished track-and-field performer, hopes to keep his soccer shoes on in college — eyeing a handful of Southern California schools.
Bagheri hopes to attend UCLA, but says he’s keeping his options open.
“As long as soccer is an option … I have no idea where I’ll end up,” the future medical student says.
Bagheri, Pleasants and LeVerrier — like the rest of their squad — are champing at the bit to see another title game, be it Jesuit or Merced.
But they also know Granite Bay (19-3-1) — which will host the Devils at 3 p.m. — is the focal point for now.
Notes: Park weighed in on his Big Three individually. On Bagheri: “He demonstrates such strong leadership skills, both on and off the field. His passion and love for soccer comes out in everything he does.” On Pleasants: “His goalkeeping is amazing, but more importantly, his ability to consider others before himself is a leadership quality that the team has benefited from.” On LeVerrier: “Don’t count on finding Lee in the same position each game. Lee’s speed and ability to play multiple positions has largely contributed to the success of this team. Lee also brings (a) good sense of humor to things.”
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8047.