The San Luis Obispo High School boys soccer team was on top of the world Tuesday. Fresh off a dominating 3-0 win over rival Arroyo Grande that all but decided the PAC 8 championship, the Tigers had their sights set on a CIF-Southern Section title as the No. 2-ranked team in Division 2.
The next day, everything came crashing down.
A photo showing a SLO High sophomore playing in a recreational league game last week, a violation of CIF rules, was sent by Paso Robles head soccer coach Omar McPherson to Arroyo Grande athletic director Stephen Field. The photo set off an investigation by SLO High that revealed that four of its 24 players had been competing in a Paso Robles recreational league during the high school season. SLO High was forced to forfeit 10 league games and the league championship, ending any hope of a playoff run.
League athletic directors voted in an emergency meeting Thursday to uphold the forfeited games.
Then, just hours after players received word they would miss the playoffs, they had the difficult task of pulling themselves together to play one last game. For the team’s 11 seniors, the road game against St. Joseph would be the last of their high school careers.
The team was upbeat to start the game. Seniors who don’t often see the field got the chance to play and brought energy. Senior starting goalkeeper Luis Albarran got the start at forward as SLO High dominated the first half. Senior Logan Axberg scored his fourth goal of the season on a header. His celebration was emphatic.
During the game, SLO High head coach James Boscaro walked the sidelines consoling the heartbroken players, including the four team members who he said knowingly violated the CIF rules and were forced to sit out the game.
When the halftime whistle blew, the reality of the moment set in and more heads began to hang. SLO High assistant coach Pat Sigler tried to lift the team’s spirits as they prepared to take the field for the second half.
“I want you to make it the most enjoyable half you have ever played,” Sigler said. “Cheer, score and have fun.”
For the most part, the team succeeded in doing just that.
Junior captain Branden Dolezal scored his 25th goal of the season to extend a school record. But the time melted away faster than any had hoped. When the final whistle blew to finalize a 2-0 SLO High victory, tears started to flow.
“We just wanted to end it with a win. We have just been working hard all season,” Axberg said with tears in his eyes. “Two nights ago, we won the league title and we beat our league rivals 3-0 and didn’t lose... and now we are not league champs.”
SLO High was working with CIF-Southern Section officials on Friday in a last-ditch effort to have the ruling overturned. The appeals by SLO High were backed up by parents of players and other members of the local community who sent emails to the CIF-Southern Section office. But according to CIF-Southern Section assistant commissioner Thom Simmons, the final say on the matter came when the PAC 8 athletic directors voted Thursday against SLO High’s admission to the playoffs.
“It’s not for us to overrule. We don’t have the ability to do that,” Simmons said. “The bylaws state the we accept league entries submitted by the league.”
That means, the four teams advancing to the playoffs from the PAC 8 include league champion Arroyo Grande, Paso Robles, Pioneer Valley and Righetti.
Even through the tears in his eyes, Axberg tried to pull the positive from the situation.
“The last couple minutes of the game I was thinking back on all the hard work, and I am proud,” Axberg said. “I am going to leave really proud. In my eyes, we won three league championships in a row. And I am proud of that.”
In the players’ eyes, SLO High finished the season with a 20-3 overall record and 13-2 league mark. Officially, the win was the team’s only recognized on-field league victory — the other win being a forfeit by Mission Prep early in the season — putting its overall mark at 10-13 and 3-12 in PAC 8 play and second to last place.
“I think they feel slighted,” Boscaro said. “At the end of the day, these are young men, and they are going to go on to do very, very good things. And this will be a spot on the radar for them. The educator in me says this is a learning moment. As a father, this a moment for compassion. As a coach, I got to be honest, it makes me angry.”
Boscaro said Friday that he guarantees that the team will never break the rules again as long as he’s coach.
“They play this game because they love to play this game, and that’s the only thing I think we are guilty of is having too much love for the game,” Boscaro said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the season records for the SLO High soccer team. It has been updated to show the correct records, both before the forfeited wins and after.