When Marine Cano accepted the women's soccer coaching job at Cal State Dominguez Hills in 1984, he knew he was starting the program from scratch. But Cano couldn't have imagined how little he would be working with.
"We had 12 players and four of them had never played before," he said, adding that one of his goals was "just to get through the season."
Injuries left that goal in jeopardy, though, forcing the team to play most of a game against Westmont College with only eight players. From the third game on, the Lady Toros played short-handed with only 10 players, finishing 2-9-2 with only four goals.
"There were times I left practice in 1984 asking myself, 'What the hell am I doing here?' " Cano said. "It was frustrating."
Just two years later, Cano and the Lady Toros have a pretty clear picture of what they're working for--a spot in the NCAA playoffs. Cano has the Lady Toros ranked 12th nationally and undefeated after seven games.
He attributes the turnaround to good recruiting and rugged workouts. "I'm hard on my players, there's no secret about that," he said. "I know the harder the practice is, the easier the game is."
But goalie Sandra Powers says the reason for the team's improvement is much simpler. "We've got more people," she said. "Now we go out there expecting to win."
The talent includes team captain Michele Salas, the leading scorer on the 1984 team; forward Robyn Queen, a transfer from Berkeley by way of El Camino College, and Jill Draper, who transferred from El Camino last year. Queen leads the team with seven goals, and Draper has six. Salas, switched to a midfield position and more of a playmaker now, leads in assists with four, while Queen and Draper have three apiece. Sophomore Kathleen Fitzgerald has two goals. Freshman Christine White is a highly regarded midfielder who is expected to orchestrate the team in coming years.
Veterans From '84
Still, Cano and assistant coach Andy Bonchonsky's tough workouts have been beneficial, said Salas. She and Powers are the only veterans from the 1984 squad.
"The coaches started off-season conditioning in late July, way before the other schools. That has a lot to do with it," Salas said. "They (opposing teams) are much more tired than we are at the end of the game. We're in better shape."
And the Lady Toros will need every edge to earn a berth in the NCAA playoffs--especially as a Division II team, Cano said. Usually only the top three teams from the West are invited to the playoffs, and sometimes the NCAA doesn't invite that many.
"The East teams are the favorites of the NCAA," Cano said. "If you want to go from the West region, you better have a good won-loss record against the top schools."
6-0-1 So Far
The Lady Toros are 6-0-1, including an opening tie with third-ranked UC Berkeley and shutouts most recently over Cal State Long Beach and Cal Poly Pomona. Powers was in goal for both games, and now has four shutouts and a 0.61 goals-against average.
Against schools like Berkeley the Lady Toros don't let their small-school image (Dominguez Hills has an enrollment of 7,500) intimidate them, Cano said.
"We don't think of ourselves as a small school," he said. "We look at ourselves as a good soccer team. We have a lot of pride and that carries over from the first year (1984)."
Most of the Lady Toros' opponents don't face the problems Cano still encounters, especially as coach of both the men's and women's teams. Cano "inherited" the men's coaching job before last year. That team is 3-3-1 this year.
Misses Some Games
"It's far from perfect," Cano said. "There's a lot of shortcomings. . . . I missed two men's games and one women's game last year. People were saying, 'Oh, he favors the women,' or 'He favors the men.'
"Sometimes it's like a poor man's blanket. Some part of me is always going to be cold."
But Bonchonsky and assistant men's coach John Gerard have handled the teams smoothly when Cano is with the other squad, the head coach said. Just as the university gave Cano carte blanche with the program, he gives the two assistants freedom to run the teams in his absence.
"I have no worries, because I know they're working them hard," Cano said.
Top Players Go Elsewhere
Bigger universities often are able to recruit top women's soccer prospects out of Southern California and even the South Bay, Cano said. He can only watch helplessly as some top players choose UCLA and Berkeley over Dominguez Hills. But that story may soon change, Cano hopes.
Still, the head coach is geared up for a Tuesday battle with 14th-ranked UC Santa Barbara, which has recruited several standout South Bay players, including Diane Manore from South Torrance High and Carin Jennings from Palos Verdes. Jennings "is probably the best player in the country," Cano said.
Coaching soccer at a small university does have its advantages, Cano added. "We're the team here in the fall," he said. "We don't have football, so my players are the only ones on the trainer's table. I have three fields, a weight room, a pool and the gym to myself. If I was a pro coach, this is where I'd want to be."
Pro Soccer Player
For now, though, the coach, who played professionally with several teams including the Los Angeles Heat of the Western Soccer Alliance this summer, will have to settle for his two college teams.
And with the team at 6-0-1 the players aren't complaining. "It's a lot more fun when you're winning," Salas said.
And Cano has no doubts about the time he puts into the program. "I love it," he said. "But it's a lot easier playing than coaching, I'll tell ya. "