When talking about San Luis Obispo High’s soccer stars Grace Park and Brian Finger, similar themes arise.
Power. Fearlessness. Versatility. Intelligence. Success.
Both players fought off defenders, played different positions, scored meaningful goals and helped their teams win league titles and lift San Luis Obispo soccer to new heights.
Park and Finger were both named to the Division 3 All-CIF-Southern Section teams, and as an added bonus, the pair have been selected as The Tribune’s 2016 Boys and Girls County Soccer Players of the Year.
By the Grace of Goal
As we sat in the bleachers at San Luis Obispo High, I asked junior forward Grace Park what she remembered most about last season.
“Definitely all the wins,” Park said.
Hard to forget.
The Tigers girls soccer team had one of the best seasons in its history. The team allowed just three goals and went undefeated (14-0) in PAC 8 play to win its first league title since 2008. The team’s 27 wins tied a school record, and it became the first soccer team in San Luis Obispo County to win a game in the CIF-Southern California regional playoffs.
But out of all the wins, Park said the thrilling quarterfinal overtime win against San Marcos is the one that she will remember for a long time. San Luis Obispo girls coach Leslie O’Connor called it the team’s breakthrough game.
Heading into overtime with the score tied 1-1, O’Connor had a question for his team.
“He said, ‘Do we want to go for it or hold back and have them pressure us and see if we can go into penalty kicks?’ ” Park said. “We all said that we should go for it. He was emotional at our awards banquet thinking back on the game because he was so proud.”
San Luis Obispo caught San Marcos by surprise by changing up the formation and moving three forwards to the top: Park, Olivia Ortiz and Amelia Corpuz-Carr.
The pressure was too much for the Santa Barbara team to handle, and Park scored the golden goal to advance the Tigers to the next round.
“Sometimes I think about what would have happened if I didn’t make it,” Park said. “The season would have been so different.”
Aside from knocking teams out of the playoffs with goals, Park has also knocked more than a few players to the ground with her trademark physical play.
“I definitely just think I want the ball more than the other person,” Park said. “I just think I’m going to win it, then I end up knocking them over.”
After scoring just two goals last season, Park bulled her way to 12 goals this season, but really it was the San Luis Obispo defense that set the tone. The Tigers broke school records for shutouts (21) and goals allowed (12) this season.
“It made us a lot more confident,” Park said. “It was almost like after we scored a goal our team could relax and actually play.”
Despite a record run, San Luis Obispo lost in the finals of the CIF-Southern California regional playoffs and the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section playoffs. But with almost all of the team returning next season, Park has high expectations. Even if the team has to do it without O’Connor, whose coaching future is still up in the air.
“I definitely want to go all the way,” Park said. “We can do it, and that’s the plan.”
Big Switch, Big Season
Coming into his senior season, Finger had scored three goals during three years on the varsity team.
That changed in a big way when coach James Boscaro moved Finger up top as the lone forward.
“I played right back or midfield in past years,” Finger said. “Pretty much anything but forward.”
Finger hit the ground running. His aggressive style and relentless pursuit of the ball resulted in a team-leading 14 goals. Finger and the Tigers finished the season with a PAC 8 championship and a 19-4-3 record.
“We had a lot of goal scorers,” Finger said, adding that the play of Keith McCarty and Branden Dolezal’s opened up the field for him. “At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t sure how we were going to do because we lost 14 seniors last year. So I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. But everyone came out and worked really hard and it was fun.”
There was a time when high school soccer wasn’t so fun. During his freshman season, Finger lost a teammate in a car crash, and the team struggled to get wins.
“For a kid his age to lose a teammate, that’s difficult for anybody at any age to have to deal with,” said San Luis Obispo boys soccer coach James Boscaro, who joined the team during Finger’s sophomore year.
“Everything together just made it really hard,” Finger said. “Club soccer at the time was my main priority, so I could go without doing high school because I didn’t know if I wanted that.”
Finger decided to play and got his first taste of a league championship his sophomore year.
“I’m definitely happy I stuck with it.”
When looking back on last season, both Boscaro and Finger talked about an away game against rival Arroyo Grande.
“They committed to stopping Brian, and it was a lot of off the ball stuff,” Boscaro said. “They were being extremely physical with him. Dragging him down, pushing and pulling and trying to take him out of his game.”
About six minutes into the game, an Arroyo Grande defender tackled Finger when the ball was 20 yards away and received a yellow card.
“In my mind, I’m thinking the guy doesn’t have anything else he can do so he’s trying to get in my head. It’s fine with me,” Finger said. “I just went hard and I knew that everyone behind me had my back.”
“The focus in that game was so much on Brian that it allowed our other guys to shine. He was almost a diversion in that game,” Boscaro said.
San Luis Obispo won the game 2-1 — a win that propelled the team to its second league championship in three years.
Finger got back to his scoring ways, racking up four goals in the CIF-Southern Section playoffs. But a 2-1 loss to Cathedral in the quarterfinals ended the Tigers season. He still considers the season a success.
“A week or two after we finished the season, I was walking across the field to go home and I was just thinking, ‘Wow, we were such a team. we came together so well,’ ” Finger said.
Finger’s goal is to keep playing soccer in college, he’s just not sure where yet.
“I want to go to a good academic school, so I want to see now if any of the schools I got into, if I can play on their team,” said Finger, who is looking to follow his parents’ footsteps and become an engineer. He plans to visit UC Davis on April 10 to talk to their soccer coach and anticipates a meeting with the Cal Poly coaching staff as well.
“It’s tough because I would like to play soccer, but really it’s about getting an education,” Finger said.
Keep the Ball Rolling
Success breeds success, as the saying goes, and the boys and girls soccer programs are feeding off each other. The boys program has been the breadwinner in years past, but this season it was the girls’ turn to bring excitement to campus.
“Watching what the girls did this season really inspired us,” Boscaro said. “It let us know what is possible.”
Park is an obvious early favorite to repeat as player of the year next year — although there are plenty of capable players in the PAC 8 and on her team — and talented Tigers freshman Branden Dolezal will have a big impact for the boys. So, don’t be surprised if two San Luis Obispo players appear in the same spot next year.