CYPRESS -- Cypress College had lost three women's soccer games in the same season only three times in 20 years -- more just once -- and this team did so in its first seven games.
If the Chargers were going to get back to the state final four, a birthright not so long ago, this wasn't going to be the team to do it.
But then a late-maturing side found some leadership, a top forward ended a self-imposed exile, and a big win over the unbeaten archrival bred needed confidence, and Cypress, among the most storied programs in California junior college soccer, went on the kind of run it's known for.
It's led where the Chargers (14-4-5) believe they belong, among the final quartet at this weekend's state championships in Sacramento. It has been five years since they last got this far after doing so for 12 straight years, winning titles in 1998, 1999 and 2004.
And here's a real kicker: They didn't lose a postseason game the whole time.
“It means a lot,” says Randi Martinez, whose side had lost second-round regional encounters on penalties the past four seasons. “It was definitely a little frustrating the last four seasons, to not be able to get over the hump, to not take care of the game in regulation, to be unfortunate on penalties. It means a lot.
“We'd been there so many years in a row, it was almost normal. It's good to get back, kind of getting the program back where it should be.”
A win Friday morning over Santa Rosa JC (18-1-3) would send Cypress to its ninth final, where a rematch with Orange Empire Conference rival Santiago Canyon College (21-1-1) might wait. The Hawks, from Orange, meet City College of San Francisco (20-1-2).
The men also are playing at Cosumnes River College, and Mt. San Antonio (20-0-3), the nation's No. 1 men's team, seeks its third straight state crown. The Mounties, from Walnut, open against City College of San Francisco (19-4-2), with the winner facing Santa Barbara City (18-1-4) or Hartnell (18-2-3) in Sunday's final.
Cypress is the least expected of Southern California's entrants, a No. 11 regional seed that struggled early, suffered more losses than in any season in program history except the first, but put together a marvelous second half, going 12-1-3 since a stunning 1-0 loss Sept. 20 at Santa Ana left it with a 2-3-2 mark.
“Usually we like to have our [returning] freshmen become sophomores a lot sooner than seven games into the season,” assistant coach Erick Hurtarte said. “Unfortunately, this year, it took us about seven games. ... I think after our Santa Ana loss, the girls finally got it.
“It took us a little bit longer, but they got the understanding of what it takes to play as a team, to have heart, to play with some workrate. ... We keep preaching to the girls there's a bug program here, there's a big tradition, and we want to uphold that every year. That's what, I think, we have over almost everybody, is the tradition.”
The Chargers' run began with a 1-0 win over Santiago Canyon, the Hawks' only loss this season, and their only defeat since was in the rematch in Orange. Cypress had shut out six straight foes before advancing on penalties, following 1-1 draw with defending state champ San Bernardino Valley, in last weekend's regional final.
“It's been challenging, it's been interesting. We learned a lot,” said Martinez, the chief on-field coach since 2000. “I think the biggest thing was learning to manage every kid and how to get them to buy into the traditions of the program. Not in a bad way, but we had to find this team a little bit.”
The catalysts were forward/midfielder Kayla Arenas (Fullerton/Sunny Hills HS), who has 24 goals in two seasons, and the sophomore tri-captains, defender Anisa Mahram (La Habra/Sonora HS), midfielder Megan Ollar (Redlands/Redlands East Valley HS) and goalkeeper Kayla Neujahr (Buena Park/Sunny Hills HS).
Forward Natalie Farah-Enriquez (Cerritos/St. Joseph HS), a returning student four years out of high school and married, emerged as an elder statesman of sorts -- “She's one of those kids, she gets the game, she sees it, she understands it,” Martinez said -- and freshman midfielder Samantha Rice (Cypress/Cypress HS) and sophomore right back Stephanie Villasenor (Compton/Bellflower HS) stepped up with big performances.
“It took awhile until we found who we were, our identity, and you know what? We found it,” Farah-Enriquez said. “We've come through a lot of adversity, gone through a lot of ups and downs, but at the end of the day we finally pulled together as a family.”
The return of forward Jacqueline Lara (Buena Park/Valley Christian HS), who scored 10 goals as a freshman, was pivotal. She had stepped away because “I had a lot going on, and soccer is very time-consuming, especially here. We practice, like, three to four hours a day, so I was like, 'Uh, maybe it's not for me.' But then I started to miss it, and I was like, 'Man, I want to go back out there.' ”
Martinez sure was happy to see her: Lara added a dynamic to the attack, making everything fit, and Cypress started its run just as she stepped into the lineup. Her hat trick fueled the 4-0 romp over third-seeded Ventura in the second round of the regional playoffs, prodding the Chargers past their four-year barrier.
“Jackie's a good soccer player and a better person,” Martinez said. “The girls look up to her. We couldn't have done this without her, we know that.”
Now that they're here, they expect to do well.
“It's such an honor,” Lara says, to be the team that brought Cypress back to the top. “We're so excited and pumped, and we know we're going to win it all.”
at Cosumnes River College (Sacramento)
Women (10 a.m.)
Santa Rosa (18-1-3) vs. Cypress (14-4-5)
Santiago Canyon (Orange, 21-1-1) vs. CC San Francisco (20-1-2)
Men (2 p.m.)
Hartnell (Salinas, 18-2-3) vs. Santa Barbara City (18-1-4)
Mt. San Antonio (Walnut, 20-0-3) vs. CC San Francisco (19-4-2)
Women, 10 a.m.
Men, 2 p.m.