When the San Luis Obispo High girls soccer team started preseason practice, it didn’t have a head coach after the departure of Kaleena Andruss. With no other choice, principal Leslie O’Connor stepped in to lead a couple of practices.
“They started asking, ‘hey Mr. O’Connor, do we have a coach yet?’ ” O’Connor said at practice on Thursday. “And here I am working behind the scenes to make that happen and then they say, ‘well what do we got?’ ”
“Well you got me.”
Luckily for the team, O’Connor is no slouch. His coaching résumé from his time as a boys and girls soccer coach at Bakersfield High from 1992-2007 includes a 429-44-51 record, 16 league championships and eight Central Section championships.
This season, he has taken a San Luis Obispo team that plays just two seniors and regularly fields four freshmen to an undefeated record.
“He is definitely very passionate about the game and it shows,” senior midfielder Sierra Nunes said. “I really respect him. I think he has done a good job holding us accountable and he knows what we are good at.”
O’Connor, who has been the school’s principal for the past five years, implemented his brand of high-intensity, attacking soccer and it has meshed well with a young, hungry group of players. Led by junior striker Grace Park and sophomore Eislee Sohner in goal, the Tigers have taken the PAC 8 by storm.
“We definitely thought this was going to be our rebuilding year because everything was changing,” Park said. “But we got lucky with some really talented underclassmen.”
Joella Holmes, Madison Johnson, Adriadna Maza and Olivia Ortiz have all contributed this season as freshmen, and are learning from the older group.
“She is physical and she is great on the ball and she talks a lot,” Ortiz, a striker, said of Park. “I have kind of looked up to her this whole year, and aspire to be like her.”
San Luis Obispo (13-0-1, 6-0 PAC 8) has done it with the best offense and defense in the league. The Tigers lead the PAC 8 with 17 goals and have allowed just two goals in league play. San Luis Obispo has given up just five goals all season, with two coming in the team’s season-opener against Lompoc.
And almost everyone is getting in on the action.
“Some of the linesman look at me like I’m a hockey coach,” said O’Connor, a native of Ireland, who began coaching in 1989. “I have 21 kids, I have no problems going 16 to 19 deep. Why not?”
O’Connor preaches a why-not-us mentality to a team that hasn’t won a league title since 2007-08 season when the Tigers were 12-0 in PAC 7 play.
“In the beginning of the year he asked us, ‘would you be happy if you guys played good soccer and you lost the game?’ And most of us were like, ‘yeah, we would be happy.’ ” Nunes said. “And he was like ‘no, that’s not the answer.’ We want to win games. It doesn’t matter if it’s pretty or not.”
San Luis Obispo has won its past eight games, including a 1-0 win over St. Joseph on Wednesday, a team O’Connor said was the toughest the Tigers have played all season.
“We have definitely proven ourselves as a good team and we want to keep that undefeated record going, but at the same time we want to play good soccer and focus on our long term goal of a CIF championship and not just focus on the next game,” Nunes said.
But the next game is a big one. The Tigers host Mission Prep on Friday night, a team that also carries an undefeated PAC 8 record at 3-0-2.
No matter the outcome of this season, O’Connor said he doesn’t plan on remaining the head coach for long, but hopes to leave his mark on the program, just like he did at Bakersfield High.
“Success brings more success,” O’Connor said. “We are just trying to build a culture that focuses on work ethic and expectation of winning.”