The Del Norte boys soccer team is in rarefied air.
The Warriors woke up this morning in the Bay Area and are set to play their North Coast Section Division I quarterfinal matchup against defending NCS champion Gateway at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.
When No. 5 Del Norte kicks off against No. 4 Gateway at 2 p.m., the Warriors will officially be the closest to a section championship that they have been in school history.
Del Norte has been in the NCS playoffs two times before since the section tournament started in 1988. The Warriors won an HDN championship in 1995 but were knocked out of the NCS Tournament in the first round with a 2-0 loss against Santa Rosa in Crescent City. Last year Del Norte was back in the tournament, but fell 3-0 to Roseland University Prep in the first round in Santa Rosa.
After a school record 10-1-2 Humboldt-Del Norte League season this year, the Warriors were awarded the fifth-seed and a first round bye into the quarterfinals this season.
“It is a big opportunity,” said Del Norte senior Bryce Howard. “Making it into the quarterfinals for the first time is a privilege, and we are going over there to try our best. If we lose, that is fine as long as we give it our all in that game.”
In addition to being the first team from Del Norte to reach the quarterfinals, this year’s NCS playoff appearance will be the first time the Warriors have ever had players with postseason experience returning to the playoffs.
“We feel good and happy that we have been able to achieve something good this year with consecutive playoff appearances,” Sanyaolu said. “We have built off of our achievement last year and have gotten better. We don’t want to stop though. We want to continue. What a way to start with the defending champion of the NCS Tournament.”
Last year, the Warriors were in a 0-0 tie at halftime against Roseland University Prep, and the score stayed at 0-0 for much of the second half before three quick goals in the final 15 minutes sunk Del Norte’s hopes.
“The first half we were tied 0-0, but in the second half we were playing pretty unorganized,” said Del Norte senior Vova Sherman. “I think our team went down a little bit after we gave up the first goal. We need to keep our heads up and hope for the best.”
Sanyaolu said he believes his players learned some valuable lessons from last year’s playoff appearance.
“I think what we went through against Roseland University Prep was a good experience for the boys,” he said. “We were 15 minutes away from getting a tie before going to extra time. The boys now know what it takes because a lot of them have experienced it. We are a different team this year, though, because we don’t rely on just hustle. We still have our hustle, but we have added good thinking progressive soccer so that we can conserve energy.”
Sanyaolyu has said multiple times that he admired last season’s team for its determination and grit, but he wanted the Warriors to be a little bit more skilled and play with a better soccer IQ this season.
“My goals for the year were to play aggressive passing soccer that would result in shots on goal,” Sayaolu said. “I’m happy that that has come to fruition, and the boys have bought into my vision. We have passed the ball well and we launch quick attacks. With that has come results.”
And those results have been better than Del Norte has ever had.
The Warriors head into the NCS Playoffs tied for the school record of 11 wins, but Del Norte’s 11-2-3 overall record heading into the game is already the best record the Warriors have ever had.
Although Sanyaolu said he had high hopes for the team heading into the season, the Warriors have come even further than he had hoped.
“I didn’t think it would go this well,” he conceded. “Everything just gelled for us. I guess it is just all of the work that we have been doing and being consistent with the message — everything has just kind of gelled. I didn’t think it would gel this soon, so that is really nice to see. I want this to be a continuous thing where we have a system in place and players come and buy into that system instead of the other way around.”
Most of Del Norte’s improvement has been in its ball control, with good passing and movement to eliminate some of the need for the continuous hustle that the Warriors relied upon in previous years.
“We have improved our passing — we aren’t booting the ball any more,” Sherman said.
“David likes to say that we have improved from old Del Norte soccer, which was booting the ball whenever we got it and hoping for the best,” Howard added. “This year we have improved tremendously. We have gotten most of our passing down, we have gotten our timing down, and I think we have gotten better in pretty much every single position.”
Del Norte’s first round matchup against Gateway is a little bit of a mystery. The Warriors haven’t played any teams outside of the Humboldt-Del Norte League yet this season. Howard said he is excited to be back in the playoffs for the opportunity to go down and see what teams in the Bay have to offer.
“It is good to go down and play teams that we have never played before, and teams that we don’t really know how they play,” Sanyaolu said. “Most of the teams down there have summer programs, and all these other things that we don’t have. It is fun to see how they play, and to compare ourselves to them. I think it makes us drive to do more with what we are doing here.”
The Warriors and Gators have only one common opponent all season long in Humboldt-Del Norte League champion Fortuna.
Gateway finished in a 2-2 tie with Fortuna during the preseason. Del Norte has battled the Huskies three times this season going 0-2-1 overall. The Warriors lost 2-1 and tied 2-2 in the regular season before falling 3-1 to Fortuna in the HDN playoffs.
“We expect (Gateway) to play the same way that Fortuna does,” Howard said. “They played Fortuna in the preseason and they tied each other. We just have to do our best. We want to play like we are playing against the No. 1 team in the tournament and just try to give it our all.”
Sanyaolu said he has been keeping an eye on several of the teams from the Bay Area this season with the hopes that the Warriors would be back in the NCS tournament this year. As the defending state champions from 2017, Sanyaolu said Gateway was one of those teams.
“I searched the internet to see if I could find any videos of them, and there are a few,” Sanyaolu said. “They pass the ball well, they move, and they have speedy players. They play the way that we play, where they focus on launching quick attacks.
“It will just be a matter of who is going to do that strategy better. I just hope that we don’t give the ball away much because if we keep possession we can do damage, but if our passes are sloppy then we are going to give them a lot of opportunities to play their game.”
Both Del Norte and Gateway should be well rested heading into the game, with both teams getting byes through the first round of competition. For the Warriors, it has been their longest layoff between games since the season kicked off at the beginning of September.
“It has been good to be able to get some rest,” Sanyaolu said. “We have just been coming to practice and working on perfecting our strategy. Even though we didn’t get the home game that we wanted, we are fortunate to have Wednesday off so that we have a whole week to prepare. We are looking forward to a fantastic match. I think my boys are up to the task.”
Reach Michael Zogg at firstname.lastname@example.org .