Orange soccer players, from left, David Ortiz, Gbanzi Benjamin Asabi, Ali Ocampo, Eddy Ojeda and Angel Franco on Tuesday, November 15, 2016. (Photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Boys soccer preview: Orange on a mission to reach new goals


ORANGE - What happened on a steamy, sun-drenched Veteran’s Day morning is a perfect example of how much the attitude on the Orange boys soccer team has changed.

Close to 40 players gave up a part of their day off from school to work on drills and get in one more scrimmage before the season opener.

A couple of years ago, Coach Victor Esparza said he would have been lucky to have six kids show up on a morning like that.

Those were the days when the Panthers were seemingly a demoralized group, living at the bottom of the Golden West League standings.




But last year, Esparza said he could see the mindset on the team beginning to change. It wasn’t by accident. The Panthers were suddenly experiencing some success.

A “winning menatlity,” he said, began to firmly take root as the Panthers advanced to the second round of the CIF-SS Division 2 playoffs, the first trip to the postseason for Orange in more than a decade.

“It took years of licking our wounds and trying to come up from the bottom for them to get them to believe in themselves again,” Esparza said. “And the young guys tasted it (success) and are turning it on this year. They know what it takes to win.”

The Panthers, who are ranked No. 10 in the Register’s county preseason top 10, have set lofty goals this season. A deeper run in the playoffs is one of them. Another mission, Esparza said, is to finally knock off Santa Ana and win the Golden West League title.

Both targets are reachable for the Panthers, who return eight players from last year’s team, including forwards Banjamin Asabi and Angel Franco, who combined for nine goals last season.

“The first step,” Esparza said, “is they have to put it on the field and practice.”

The Panthers don’t seem to mind breaking a sweat. Besides showing up on Veteran’s Day for an extra workout, Esparza said the players got together on a Sunday in November to organize an intramural futsal tournament in the gym. All 60 of the players in Orange’s soccer program participated and their parents supplied the food.

In the 1980s and ’90s the Panthers were a perennial CIF-SS championship contender. Esparza played on one of those teams, which fell to Sunny Hills in the semifinals in 1987.

Orange won its last CIF-SS championship in 1996 when Danny Califf, a former U.S. National Team member, was on the roster.

Now that Califf is retired from the MLS and international soccer, Esparza said Califf comes back to play in the team’s alumni game and talk to the players about the importance of setting goals and hard work.

The time spent with Califf, Franco said, has inspired the Panthers.

“It has motived us to get better as a player and a team. It has motivated us to work,” Franco said. “We are hungry now. We want to win a lot of games.”

Does that mean the Panthers can reach the big goal that Esparza said they have this season and finally take down Santa Ana?

“Yeah,” Franco said. “Yeah, I think we can do it.”

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