Luis Bravo was a gung-ho freshman who couldn't wait to play high school soccer when he arrived at Encina in the fall of 2004.
"I remember coming out to a practice and there were six guys, and two coaches watching them kick the ball around," Bravo said. "There were barely enough players on game day to even have a team. I didn't keep playing that season. It wasn't worth it."
But when John Buchmiller and Glenda Claremon took over as boys soccer coaches a year later, Bravo could sense a change was about to take place.
Although Bravo, a three-year captain, played on teams that won only a handful of games, he saw progress every season.
Where there once had been a revolving door of coaches, Buchmiller and Claremon stayed the course. Where there once were poor attitudes and selfish behavior, there was respect and more of a willingness to play together.
"They got me thinking in a completely different way about soccer," Bravo said. "Before, when I played, it was dog-eat-dog, all individual. It was only about winning. They taught me how to play with character and be respectful toward the game."
Now Bravo is Claremon's assistant (Buchmiller left Encina to teach and coach boys soccer at Mira Loma this year), and the Bulldogs are one of the area's top small-school powers.
This afternoon they begin their quest to do what no other area boys soccer team has done in section history win a fourth consecutive section title when they host Millennium of Tracy at 3 p.m. in the Division VI quarterfinals.
While Encina once struggled to field a team, the Arden-area school of 621 students now has 45 players and varsity and junior varsity teams.
The varsity team is reflective of the school's diverse student body, with nimble dribblers, shooters and defenders from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Mexico and Central America.
Many come from economically challenged families, and a few barely speak English because they've recently arrived in the United States.
"Even though we come from all over the world, we're really close, like a family," said senior co-captain Kevin Velazquez, who has been on Encina's three championship teams. "We hang out with each other on and off the field. We're like brothers."
Claremon, a grandmother and attorney with four grown children, got her start coaching her kids in the Sierra Oaks Soccer Club. She later coached boys and girls soccer at Rio Americano, a school where most players have high-level club experience.
Encina is different, with only a handful of players having club experience. Most learned the game playing on the streets, in the parks or in ethnic leagues.
"It's five miles and a world apart," Claremon said of Encina and Rio Americano. "A lot of players come to Encina with remarkable individual skills but no clue how to play as a team. That's why having a JV program has been so huge. You put a 14-year-old on varsity who isn't ready, and you can ruin his confidence."
Encina's confidence was shaken a little this season.
Unlike last year, when the Bulldogs won the Sierra Delta League title en route to a 1-0 win over Vacaville Christian in the Division VI section final, the Bulldogs went 9-7-1 overall and finished second to Highlands in league, though they beat the Scots 2-0 in the last regular-season game Oct. 23.
"Talent-wise, this is the best team we have had at Encina," Claremon said. "They're wonderful kids. But at times we have not played to our potential. There's been a spark missing."
Claremon hopes Velazquez and Juan "Juancho" Duarte will spark the Bulldogs in the postseason. She considers the diminutive Duarte a special player, as good in his own way as arguably the Bulldogs' greatest player, Miguel Aguilar, now on scholarship at USF.
"You can't compare John Stockton to Shaq, can you?" Claremon asks. "They're really two different players. But Juancho can do some amazing things with the ball. He's my X-factor. He can play anywhere."
Velazquez is her steadying force.
"Kevin's a smart player who really controls the ball," Claremon said. "So he's been running the team this year in the midfield."
In 2009 as freshmen, Duarte and Velazquez were brought up to the varsity in the postseason and were part of Encina's first and most improbable section title.
The Bulldogs trailed favored Capital Christian 1-0 with just seconds to play in stoppage time when Aguilar hit a sizzling 20-yard blast just off the goalie's fingertips to tie the score. He then volleyed in the jaw-dropping game winner in the second overtime.
Capital Christian, which won last year's Division V title after finishing second the year before, is back in Division VI this season. The Cougars are the top seed. Encina is No. 3.
Velazquez, who has a 3.5 grade-point average and hopes to become an engineer, said he spent much of the fall thinking about what another championship might mean for his school.
"It would be good, and it's important because we don't have the best reputation," Velazquez said. "You'll hear people say it's a bad school with bad kids.
"That's just not true. There are a lot of cool kids, good kids here. Winning another championship will show people that there is good stuff happening at Encina."