Players from the Santa Paula High soccer team approached Coach Joe Magdaleno before the season with a special request.
The players weren't seeking new uniforms, fancy sweat suits or soccer balls. Indeed, some coaches might be shocked by what the team asked for: A kick in the butt.
"Each player said, 'Joe, we want you to work the team real hard and get us back to where we were two years ago,' " Magdaleno recalled last week.
So far, it's working. The Cardinals are 5-2 against a tough lineup of nonleague opponents and begin their Frontier League schedule Friday at Santa Clara.
Santa Paula won the Southern Section 1-A Division championship in 1987, but lost in the quarterfinals to Hemet, 3-2, last year. The Cardinals' reaction to the loss shows why they are traditionally one of the top teams in Ventura County.
"The soccer team has a reputation in town and we take a lot of pride in Santa Paula of soccer," forward Dustin Magdaleno, the coach's son, said.
Since the elder Magdaleno started the program in 1980, Santa Paula has won five league titles and has missed the playoffs only once. Four times it has reached the semifinal round before losing.
"The things I stress more than winning are pride, discipline and respect," Magdaleno said. "If you have that, you can accomplish anything in life."
Magdaleno has only one team rule: No swearing. A few bad words, and a player can find himself off the team.
"If a player gets to a point where he's swearing at an opponent or referee, he's not going to be successful." Magdaleno says he never cuts anyone who tries out for the team, and he tries to play as many players as possible.
"As long as a player is willing to practice hard, he is on the team," Magdaleno said. "And if we get up by three goals by halftime, I try to let everybody play."
The Cardinals also benefit greatly from the Hispanic heritage of Santa Paula, a city where 60 percent of the population is Latino. Soccer is the national pastime in Spain and most of Latin America.
"Most of my players grew up with a soccer ball and learned from their dads, uncles and brothers," Magdaleno said. "By the time they get to high school, some of them are showing me tricks."
Dustin Magdaleno, Carlos Elizarraraz and Juan Carlos Rodriguez, among others, compete in a local summer league against older players, many of whom work as field hands during the week.
Many players come back to practices after graduation from high school and scrimmage against the current team.
The younger Magdaleno and Elizarraraz, the team captains, tell their teammates about the 1987 championship team, on which they played as freshmen.
"They keep telling us how great winning the championship felt and how hard they worked," fullback Jamie Johnson said. "It gets us pumped up."
Johnson went out for the cross-country team--which is also coached by Magdaleno--last spring to be in better shape for soccer. Magdaleno said the work ethic of his players stems from the fact that many worked in the area's orange, lemon and avocado groves--work that makes the discipline of soccer seem easy by comparison.
"The kids that come out for soccer have grown up where they have to work for everything they want," he said.