By Dan Arritt     1/18/2017

One of the oldest and most decorated girls’ soccer clubs has been training for years about a mile from JSerra High School.

The San Juan Capistrano-based SoCal Blues have developed some of the best players in Southern California since the club was founded in 1990, but getting those same blue chippers to attend high school on the other side of the freeway hasn’t been such a natural transition.

That’s rapidly changed ever since Blues coaching brothers Greg and Matt Baker took over the JSerra girls’ soccer program four years ago, while still coaching an age-group team with the Blues.

This season, JSerra is stacked with young players who developed their games and won championships with the Blues. Not surprisingly, JSerra is surging up the rankings.

The Lions opened the season ranked No. 4 in CIF-SS Division I, despite getting eliminated in the second round of last season’s playoffs. The reason for the optimism is the return of JSerra’s top player from last season, sophomore forward Isabella D’Aquila, as well as an influx of ultra-talented freshmen, nearly all with ties to the Blues.

In fact, D’Aquila and six current freshmen for JSerra helped the Blues under-13 team advance to the finals of the US Youth Soccer national championships in July of 2015. Two other JSerra freshmen, Jayd Sprague and Samantha Williams, have since joined that group, and they teamed up to win the under-14 ECNL national championships last summer in Oceanside.

With those players forming much of JSerra’s starting lineup this winter, the Lions are in perfect position to build chemistry year-round and for years to come, all while training in the same city and with the same coaches.

“It’s great because we already know how to play together,” said Williams. “We’re developing that same style and now we’re rolling.”

Williams has formed a particularly strong on-field bond with D’Aquila, who scored 28 goals as a freshman last season to place third in Orange County.

“We work really well together,” Williams said. “We talk a lot to each other and we have the same work ethic, and we think alike with our backside runs, and when something doesn’t go right, we talk about it.”

Five years ago, Greg Baker said players like D’Aquila and Williams likely would have enrolled at Santa Margarita, or Aliso Niguel, or any one of the South Orange County high schools with historically strong girls’ soccer programs.

“The program at JSerra was new, and Santa Margarita was so well-respected,” he said. “I think people just naturally went there.”

The Bakers were hired at JSerra following the 2012-13 season, and their experience coaching younger teams with the Blues quickly opened a pipeline to JSerra. The Lions still have a wide gap to close with Santa Margarita, which has won two of the last three Division I championships, but they’re making significant strides.

JSerra and Santa Margarita ran into each other earlier this season in the championship game of the OC Winter Showcase and Santa Margarita stormed to a 5-1 victory, though the Lions were without several starters.

JSerra then had 3 1/2 weeks between games before going 3-0-1 against non-Orange County opponents to win the North Orange County Tournament.