There is talk of winning titles again, albeit in the lower SCVAL El Camino Division, and reaching the Central Coast Section playoffs is more reality than dream. Moreover, there is hope just one year after there was none.
Last season was a train wreck of massive proportions for Palo Alto, which failed to win a match for the first time ever. And this, from a program that had been in existence for more than 40 years and won or shared four CCS titles during that time.
The Vikings went 0-9-3 in the SCVAL De Anza Division and 0-15-5 overall, earning a demotion to the El Camino Division. There were few, if any, positives during the season.
Only three years earlier, it couldn't have been much better for the Vikings, who finished with a 21-1-3 record for the most victories in program history, allowed only one goal during the league season and wound up sharing the Central Coast Section Division I title with Bellarmine, while earning a No. 13 national ranking at one point.
Thus, Palo Alto went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.
"Last season was tough as we have a history of successful expectations," said Paly head coach Don Briggs. "We had no returning starters and only one returning player. We were younger, smaller, and less experienced and in a very tough division of the De Anza D1 league. At times, we had eight freshmen and sophomores on the field against teams fielding 11 upperclassmen. Teams would often simply wear us down as the game progressed."
Briggs was without players for various reasons, which included conflicts with club teams, injuries and friction with the coaching staff.
"Instead of focusing on the score, we concentrated on being better every time we played," Briggs said. "As the season went on, we gave up fewer goals but still had trouble scoring (Paly had two goals in 12 league games). The team had a good attitude and (the players) supported each other and continued to work hard to improve.
"As a team, we stressed the positive and worked to improve both individually and as a team. All I demanded is that they work hard in practice and on the field. As long as a player could walk off the field and say 'I did my best, I left nothing behind' . . . what more could we ask for? I never saw us give up in a game."
Current senior defender Kirby Gee was among those who suffered through last season.
"For as bad as it sounds, it wasn't as bad as you would think," he said. "Yes, it felt awful to be a part of a losing team, but just like any other season, we had fun. Our goal was to get better every day and, although our record doesn't show it, we did. It was a great learning experience."
It was so positive that Gee and 14 teammates from last season returned to the team.
"It never crossed my mind," Gee said of the thought of not returning. "If anything, I was looking forward to this season.
"We knew that most of us would be playing together again, so we are familiar with each other's type of play. It plays a really big role in soccer — communication, anticipation and confidence. Also, our team chemistry is real strong."
All 15 returning players had another reason to come back.
"We are ready for a shot at redemption," Gee said.
Thus far, the Vikings are doing just that. They are 2-0 in the SCVAL El Camino Division following Monday's 3-1 victory over host Monta Vista and are 6-2-1 overall, which includes a championship title in the Oak Grove Gold Cup in December.
Palo Alto's season, which started with a loss to Carlmont, took off after that.
"We lost our first game and then won our first game in the Oak Grove Gold Cup tournament," Briggs said. "We did not celebrate, but it was more of a group/collective sigh of relief — a feeling like a big weight had come off their back."
Palo Alto put together a four-match win streak before falling to long-time De Anza Division rival Mountain View, but has gone 2-0-1 since then and appears ready to regain its role as a postseason regular.
"Winning has restored our confidence," said Gee. "Instead of going into games wondering how bad it will be, we prepare for the game with a winning mentality. However, the biggest reason that makes us think about being successful again is that we are finally scoring. I have confidence that our back line can hold opponents to a clean sheet, so it's all up to our goal scores. Chris Meredith is the jolt we needed to turn the season around."
Meredith, one of eight seniors listed on the roster, did not play last season. He played on the frosh-soph team for two years before deciding to spend his junior year concentrating on his studies while getting ready for college. He kept his soccer skills intact by playing with a Palo Alto club team.
Meredith decided to return because it was his senior year. He also thought playing in the lower El Camino Division would be fun. He brings plenty of speed and experience to the team, showing both against Monta Vista as he took a bouncing ball from fellow senior Cina Vazir and headed it past the Matadors' keeper for a 2-0 lead in the first half on Monday. Senior Paul Stefanski scored Paly's first goal in the opening eight minutes while Gee converted a penalty kick in the second half.
"We are better this year due to the maturity of the younger players," Briggs said. "We are still young and have room to improve. However, we are a little faster and a little stronger with a year of experience. We have a good group and our frosh-soph team is the strongest I have seen in four or five years."
Thus, Palo Alto has closed the door on last season and opened a new one.
"I try to focus on our team, not our opponents," Briggs said. "I scheduled 'A' league preseason opponents because that's where we want to play, and I think that will challenge us to be a better team for league play. I am trying to help our team get better.
"The Mountain View loss showed that we needed to regroup and try to stress the things that we are doing right and work on those things to make us better. There will be some good teams in the El Camino and we need to play our best every game to improve."
Mountain View, for example, has won the De Anza Division title the past two seasons after moving up from the El Camino Division. That's something Briggs would like to duplicate.
"We need to continue to grow and improve and focus on playing our best game, no matter our opponent," he said. "If we play well, we can compete with most teams in the SCVAL."