The San Luis Obispo High School girls soccer team could be described as perfectly average in the seven seasons following its league title in 2008. They rarely finished with a losing record, but also were unable to match that level of success.
That all changed in 2015 when SLO High principal Leslie O’Connor, a coaching legend in the Central Valley, took over as head coach and sparked an unprecedented run of success — continuing Saturday when the Tigers (23-1-0) play for a CIF-Southern Section Division 2 title for the first time in school history.
O’Connor led the team to a school-record 27 wins during the 2015-16 season and helped the Tigers become the first soccer team in San Luis Obispo County history to win a game in the state tournament with its runner-up finish in the Division 3 CIF Southern California Region (that year, SLO High lost in the semifinals of the sectionals but still advanced to the final tournament).
O’Connor stepped down the following season, but the success — and many of the players from that team — continued to win under the leadership of 21-year-old Brittney Viboch, a senior goalkeeper at Cal Poly who has also served as the Tigers head coach the past two seasons.
Over the past three seasons, including this one, SLO High has amassed a 70-5-2 record. Entering Saturday’s game against Temecula Valley (21-6-2) at Corona High (4 p.m.), SLO High is ranked No. 19 in the state and No. 52 in the nation, according to MaxPreps.com.
So what went into the turnaround? O’Connor said he just got lucky. Aspects of that might be true, but change started with a core group of young players and a shift in coaching philosophy.
High school teams usually follow a simple formula: Upperclassmen get the bulk of the playing time while freshmen and sophomores ride the bench or play on the junior varsity team until it’s their time.
Viboch and O’Connor don’t subscribe to that theory.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a freshman or a senior, you run with the players that work hard and deserve it and cultivate that team environment where there isn’t a pecking order. It should be, ‘We are collectively in it together,’ ” O’Connor said.
That’s certainly true for SLO High. Five freshmen played critical roles its state tournament run in 2016, and three of the top four goal scorers this season for the Tigers are sophomores.
“We tell them you have to come out and show up every single practice, and that’s the environment that we want,” Viboch said.
O’Connor also brought with him a substitution strategy that’s almost never seen on the high school soccer pitch, sometimes subbing five players at a time like a hockey coach.
“What that showed is that everybody was viewed as having a role to play, and so there was that collective buy in,” O’Connor said. “When you are actively involved, then you are connected.”
Viboch has continued the strategy, making sure everyone sees the field even if it’s only for a few minutes, along with using players in different positions to avoid complacency.
“We are gifted, so I can rotate, rotate, rotate, and I think that’s what helped us (in the 2-1 overtime win) against Sunny Hills. I think they subbed twice,” Viboch said.
All but one field player has scored a goal for SLO High this season, and the entire roster has seen the field during the playoffs. Viboch, a member of the Westview High soccer team that won a Southern California Regional Division 1 championship in 2014, said the team connection is what has helped lead to the recent success.
“I truly believe it is their chemistry and their heart. I tell everyone, I come from San Diego where soccer is huge, and you don’t see the passion and the heart that you see here,” Viboch said. “You can’t teach that. Honestly, it is very inspiring.”
SLO High senior Emily LeMiere embodies that spirit.
As a sophomore, she saw regular playing time and scored in the Southern Region Championship game in 2016. This season, her playing time has been reduced in favor of younger players, but that hasn’t changed her approach.
“If I come to practice with a negative attitude, immediately the whole team is bummed out, so it’s important for me to be encouraging,” said LeMiere, who was voted as one of three team captains. “Playing time is one thing, but I feel like my teammates still respect me.”
LeMiere played crucial minutes in SLO High’s 3-0 win over Redondo Union in the quarterfinals last week. Still there are drawbacks to difficult coaching decisions.
“The challenging part is knowing that they all show up, but there are going to be players that you can’t get into the game,” Viboch said.
Players win games
Coaching philosophies and luck aside, everyone knows it’s the players on the field who win games — and SLO High is stacked.
“I look over sometimes and see that we have players that were all-league at one point sitting on the bench,” Viboch said.
Junior Olivia Ortiz, a Cal Poly commit, has scored 27 goals so far this season and has 43 goals in the past two years. She scored the winning goal with five minutes to play in SLO High’s dramatic 4-3 win over Agoura in the first round of the playoffs.
Sophomores Bailey Frost, Emma Ruzius (who had the game-winning goal to get SLO High to the finals) and Frankie Phelan have combined for 34 goals and 22 assists this season. Meanwhile, the defense — led by juniors Amber Nunes, Madison Johnson and Molly Massman and senior goalkeeper Eislee Sohner — has allowed just 11 goals in 24 games.
“We all played club, and we are all really connected, so it’s been fun getting to play on a super team together,” Massman said.
With a huge group of players coming back and more young talent in the pipeline, don’t be surprised to see SLO High back in this position next season.
But first, it’s all about the present — and making history — for the Tigers.
“Since we are going to the show, we got to make it count,” Massman said. “I am just excited to start playing.”
SLO High (23-1-0) vs. Temecula Valley (21-6-2)
CIF-Southern Section Division 2 championship game
WHEN: 4 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Corona High School
WATCH LIVE: The game will be streamed live on FoxSports.com’s Prep Zone Stream at 4 p.m. Saturday.