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Girls' soccer: Top-ranked Corona Santiago balances shenanigans and execution

LA Times logo LA Times 1/15/2023 Luca Evans
Corona Santiago girls' soccer players kneel in prayer before a match against Corona Centennial on Jan. 5. (Luca Evans / Los Angeles Times) © (Luca Evans / Los Angeles Times) Corona Santiago girls' soccer players kneel in prayer before a match against Corona Centennial on Jan. 5. (Luca Evans / Los Angeles Times)

The Thursday night torrent does little, unfortunately, to wash away the scent of urine.

There are rats inside Corona Santiago High’s press box, according to girls’ soccer coach Mike Fleming. Thus, Fleming attests, the room smells of urine. It’s still a refuge, though, from the onslaught of rain that pounds Santiago’s turf this early-January night, players on the field squinting.

The rubber track around the field fills with puddles. The Santiago girls' soccer players, bundled in jackets, gleefully and punt a waterlogged ball through the water before a game against Corona Centennial.

They assemble on the field, Sharks players starting to perform the Griddy Dance amid the downpour as Kanye West’s “Power” thumps over soaked loudspeakers. Fleming carries a large umbrella, and players on the sidelines crack up as he jogs over from a pregame meeting with officials.

“It’s like a beach umbrella,” one player said while laughing.

At first glance, nothing is taken too seriously. Santiago is just another public high school soccer team in an era of club dominance. The players mosh-pit in their locker room before every game to “Shots” by LMFAO. Their assistant coach tells them, “May the Force be with you.” And their press box smells of urine.

“We’re not walking around like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re the best in the nation,’” sophomore forward Madelyn Saruwatari said.

Yet they could.

The rain slows and shenanigans end at kickoff, replaced by an unrelenting possession-based attack and dogged pursuit of the ball. This is a group of neighborhood kids, Fleming says proudly, playing in a system that’s become one of the best in Southern California. Through this winter season, the Sharks are 14-0-1 and ranked as the best team in the country by the United Soccer Coaches.

“It’s probably the least talented team I’ve seen in eight years watching them … and yet, they still are able to stay on top,” Centennial coach Jason Smith said. “That’s pretty remarkable, when you think about it.”

Every season, Fleming instills a word as the team’s motto. In 2019-20, when Santiago won its first Southern Section Division I title, it was “trust” — the program switching philosophies from a direct attack to ball control. This season, it’s “execute.”

He does not let the team forget it, the girls laughing at how often Fleming repeats the phrase.

“He just always reminds us, like …” Saruwatari says, before being interrupted by senior Kaitlyn Currier, who has committed to Cal State East Bay.

“We’re going to execute ourselves if we don’t execute!” Currier shouts in a gruff-voiced impression of Fleming, teammates cracking up.

Much like the girls, Fleming doesn’t take himself too seriously. The 23-year head coach has been blessed by talent, he said, with six college commits on last season’s team and 11 the season before. He’s a big believer in “keep it simple, stupid,” he says with a grin.

“The older I get,” Fleming says with a smile, “the easier it is.”

Laugh as they might at Fleming’s emphasis, the Sharks execute with extreme patience, their offense like a slow-moving tide. Advance, then pull back, until an opening is found and a player crests through.

“We’ll get them out of shape and then just turn, quickly stab at them,” Saruwatari said.

They dominated possession against Centennial in a 3-0 win earlier this month. Quick-footed junior midfielder Krystal Medina, Saruwatari and Currier each scored.

Santiago’s system doesn’t change, Smith said. The challenge is to stay consistent when you’re undefeated, because, as Fleming knows — heading into the 2019-20 playoffs unranked before knocking off previously unbeaten Upland — nothing is guaranteed.

“We just can’t let it get to us,” Currier said.

There are other programs in the Southern Section are in pursuit, including Santa Margarita and Temecula Valley.

Santa Margarita is led by first-year head coach Craig Bull. The Eagles are 11-0-2 and will face a tough Trinity League schedule down the stretch of the season. Junior forward Faith George, who has committed to USC and also runs track, is someone to watch as the team’s top scorer.

Temecula Valley is the reigning Division I state champion and the Golden Bears (13-3-2) are back for another run. Last season’s Southern Section Division 1 player of the year, Natalie Mitchell, is now at Virginia Tech, but the Golden Bears still have a slew of talent with senior Cal State Long Beach commit Zoe Willis and Air Force commit Annika Jost.

Orange County is as strong as ever with JSerra (9-1-3) and Villa Park (9-3-2) fielding customarily strong teams. San Clemente (10-1-4) and Huntington Beach (16-2-1) are also potential contenders.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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