Branden Dolezal was having the best regular season of his life.
He was one game away from finishing a dazzling junior-season campaign and already had set a school record for goals. He had the San Luis Obispo High School boy’s soccer team, which was ranked No. 1 in the state by MaxPreps.com at one point this past season, on a course to make a deep run in the CIF-Southern Section playoffs — and possibly in the state tournament, too.
That all changed on the afternoon of Feb. 8. It was then when Dolezal and SLO High found out there would be no playoff run after two photographs surfaced showing a teammate breaking Southern Section rules by playing in a men’s league game during the high school season. SLO High was forced to forfeit 10 games along with its PAC 8 league title, causing the Tigers to lose out on a chance at the postseason.
“It was heartbreaking, especially for the seniors, because that’s no way you want to end your career,” Dolezal said. “It hit me pretty hard just because of what I had been through during the season. It would have been nice to top it off in the playoffs.”
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In the aftermath, it would have been easy for Dolezal to be angry at the four players whose decisions to play in a recreational league during the season led to the forfeits, but that’s not what head coach James Boscaro saw.
“He dealt with it with a lot of compassion. He didn’t blame anyone,” Boscaro said. “He could have come out and hurt the team. How ever he reacted, I could have seen the team go that way, but he was positive and that helped.”
Dolezal probably had the most to lose by missing out on the playoffs, Boscaro noted. College soccer scouts like to hang out at playoff games, and Dolezal has shown by scoring 50 goals in three seasons that he’s got the talent to play Division I soccer. It would have been another chance to show off his all-around game, but Dolezal said he wasn’t thinking about himself in those difficult moments.
“For the boys that did it, we tried to make them feel better because it was hard for us to accept it, so I can’t even imagine what it was like for them,” Dolezal said. “I just kept thinking, 'Why?' But when it comes down to it, you have to be a good teammate first.”
After learning the news, SLO High had to pull it together for one more game. And Dolezal went out playing his typical relentless brand of soccer. He scored his 25th and final goal of the season to extend a school record, capping a season worthy of being named The Tribune 2017-18 Boys Soccer County Player of the Year for the second time.
“It’s cool to have that, but I would much rather have a CIF championship or a league championship,” Dolezal said.
Dolezal surpassed the 20-goal challenge issued to him by his coach in dazzling fashion to lead all of CIF-Southern Section Division 2 in goals scored. But one goal in particular stands out to Boscaro.
It was an early season game against Montgomery High, and Dolezal was on a breakaway. With only the goalkeeper left to beat, Dolezal tried to chip it over his head. The goalkeeper initially made the save, and the ball flew back at Dolezal, who volleyed it out of the air for his second goal of the game.
"That was the moment we knew we had a team when that goal went in," Boscaro said.
He followed that up with another two-goal game against Livingston, a team that was then ranked No. 1 in the state.
Despite missing out on the playoffs, Dolezal — who doesn't turn 17 until October — will have plenty more chances to show off his skills, starting with a top high school soccer showcase tournament Saturday in Dallas. Then it’s on to his senior year.
“It’s going to be my senior year, so I want to go in harder than this year,” Dolezal said. “We can take from this year and have a little chip on our shoulder and hopefully go do it. That would be a dream come true.”