From zero to hero: Varsity girls soccer reflects on their phenomenal season


Rohan Vaswani

Co-captain senior Esha Gupta stands amid her teammates at practice. Coming off the pandemic-ravaged campaign last year, Los Altos High School varsity girls soccer would go on to achieve a level of success not seen in over a decade, winning the title of Central Coast Section (CCS) champions and reaching the semifinals of the Norcal state playoffs.

Last season, the Los Altos varsity girls soccer team didn’t win a single game. Ending at the bottom of the league with 11 losses, zero wins, and only one tie, the team ended the season with a 10-game losing streak.

This year, however, the team had one of the most dominant comeback seasons in team history. After coming off the pandemic-ravaged campaign last year, they would go on to achieve a level of success not seen in over a decade, winning the title of Central Coast Section (CCS) champions and reaching the semifinals of the Norcal state playoffs.

“Last season was crazy,” co-captain senior Esha Gupta said. “Because of COVID, we had a lot of players in and out. A lot of us were playing for clubs and high school at the same time too, so we had a lot of injuries.”

Despite consecutive losses the previous season, the adversity provided learning opportunities and growth for the team.

“Last season showed us we had a work ethic,” Esha said. “In one of our best games we ended up almost tying the best team in the league, which showed us that even though we might not be the best team technically, if we kept going at it, we could potentially get the result we wanted.”

This year, as expected, the team was projected to finish at the bottom of the standings. However, a roster revamped with underclassmen talent and new coaches provided new potential ahead of the season.

“When I inherited the team, I knew I was up for a challenge,” Head Coach Zanin Mahic said. “But once tryouts rolled around, I knew that a lot of the girls that showed up were going to surprise the rest of the league.”

The Eagles would debut that talent in their home opener, shutting out San Jose High School 10–0.

“I don’t think we were really expecting anything,” Esha said. “We only had one practice before that, so it was really just a trial to see where we were as a team.”

This year, the roster included a wider variety of both upper and underclassmen. According to Mahic, this helped to foster a greater sense of community among teammates.

“There was a lot of individual talent,” he said. “But when you put them all on the same field, they played as a unit. There weren’t any egos on the team.”

“Usually in high school sports, the classes only hang out with themselves, but everyone was really open to hanging out with each other,” Esha said.

After that easy first win, games started becoming sloppy, with the team struggling to stay on top of their opponents. A four-game streak without wins extended into mid-January, leading to struggles in both tactics and morale.

“We went from a 4-3-3 formation to a 3-5-2, but then teams started figuring us out,” Mahic said.

For players, life outside of the team began to take a toll on their overall performance.

“People were stressed with school, COVID was trending upwards, and it really showed on the field,” Esha said.

In an effort to stay a step ahead, Mahic opted for the less conventional 3-4-3 formation. The increase to four midfielders and a reduction to three defenders allowed the team to surprise opponents, which were used to the more common and offensively-focused 4-3-3.

“The girls’ club coaches had most of them do the traditional 4-3-3,” he said. “It was nice to see them try new formations. In the beginning it didn’t make much sense to them, but as the games and practices went on, they really got the hang of it and a lot of the other teams didn’t know how to adapt to them.”

Having formed a team-wide community, players were able to continue to bond and weather the storm. Whether it was going out for boba or taking trips to the beach, finding time outside of practices to rekindle motivation helped bring the team together.

“[The bonding] was definitely a highlight of the season, emotionally,” Esha said.

After taking the time to reassess, the Eagles began to find the stride that ultimately launched them into the playoff. They would end the season with just one more loss and tie—after a six-game winning streak—to continue to CCS. However, due to personal reasons, Coach Mahic was unable to attend.

“I was gone for the quarters, semis and finals,” Mahic said. “But before every game, I spoke with my assistant, Brandon Pena, for game plans, who’s gonna be starting and how we’re gonna handle certain situations.”

The Eagles started the postseason strong, with a 7–4 victory against Notre Dame High School and a 3–1 victory against Carlmont High School. With the wins, they advanced to play against Santa Cruz High School for the title of CCS champions.

“We played Notre Dame in the preseason,” Esha said. “So we knew we could beat them, but we thought we would lose [CCS] in the semis or finals. We never thought we would go all the way.”

“Every game we had a new hero,” Mahic said. “Seniors stepped up, midfield stepped up, everybody stepped up at the right time.”

While battling Santa Cruz High School for the section title, the game would continue into overtime, which ultimately went without scoring. The ensuing penalty shootout was where the Eagles finally achieved what they had been striving for the entire season, and what very few thought they could win: the title of CCS champions. With Santa Cruz missing a penalty, sophomore Sophia Kurisu delivered a shot that sailed into the back of the net to seal the win.

“It was insane,” Esha said. “It was probably the most exciting moment of the season. It’s stressful being in a [penalty kick] shootout, and so when Sophia scored that last PK, everyone was kind of in shock, because none of us thought we were even going to make it to CCS finals — we thought we would go out in the first round — and for us to win, we just thought, ‘Wow, we just made program history.’”

Though Mahic was unable to attend the game, he was still able to experience the moment.

“I was in Europe at the time, a nine-hour difference,” Mahic said. “I tried to stay up, for the longest time, but [it was very late] so I went to sleep. When I woke up, and heard we were CCS champs, it made me smile, even though I was dealing with something so sad. Knowing the girls were happy, and that all the hard work that they put in from the start to the end of the season paid off, made everything worth it.”

The win put them in the Norcal state playoffs, where a 3–1 home victory against Campolindo High School let the Eagles move forward to the Norcal semifinals. However, their playoff run would ultimately come to an end with a 2–4 loss against Chico High School.

Despite the tough defeat, the unbelievable season marked a major transformation for the team and one that both Mahic and players hope will ensure future success.

“It was just a really big achievement to win CCS and make it that far in Norcals,” Esha said. “And because it’s a new team and a young team, there’s a good next two to three years.”

“This team’s going to be very scary next year,” Mahic said. “We’re definitely going to be the team to beat.”