By Dan Arritt     12/13/2016

If forecasts are correct, this is the season the investments begin to pay off.

The Mater Dei boys’ soccer team had a talent-rich freshman class two years ago, so skilled that coach Sean Ganey remembers huddling with his assistants and making a difficult decision.

“We said, ‘Alright, let’s build around them,” Ganey said.

Nearly a dozen freshmen made varsity that season. From that pool, Ganey plucked half his starters, exposing them to some of the most competitive soccer in the Southland. In their very first game, the Monarchs faced El Toro, a team that would go on to play for the CIF-SS Division I title.

Losses came at a rapid rate, but the freshmen players put their heads down and kept working, kept learning from the experience.

That group is now juniors, and Ganey believes all the bumps and bruises they incurred along the way have shaped them into players who appear ready to challenge for a Trinity League title this season, something the Monarchs haven’t accomplished since 2003, when they occupied the Serra League.

“We feel like we’ve put a lot of work into [the junior class], and we feel like now’s their time,” Ganey said before the team’s season-opening 4-1 win against Orange. “We’re excited to see what this group can do.”

Ganey had 11 freshmen on varsity two years ago, and defenders Favricio Becerra and Grant Harper, midfielders Justin Stephen, Caden Rule and John Bruder, and forwards Nick Cirrito and Issac Palomares all started all or parts of that season.

The Monarchs went 3-6-1 in Trinity League play their first season and 1-7-2 as sophomores. They younger players didn’t get discouraged, however. They just practiced harder and grew tighter off the field.

“It was an awesome group coming in, not just as soccer players, but kids,” Ganey said. “They’re such good kids. It’s unbelievable, and they’ve remained super tight-knit over the course of the two years, three years that we’ve had them here.”

Ganey could see the progression during a successful summer and fall, when the team worked extra hard on the field and in the weight room. They had a much different look to them at the start of this season.

“They look like men,” he said. “They’re confident.”

One of the first big tests will be a two-day event in Arizona in mid-December, when the Monarchs will face local powers Mesa High School and Corona Del Sol on back-to-back days. Mater Dei returns home Dec. 23 to host Los Alamitos, a CIF-SS Division I semifinalist last season, before heading to Oceanside the day after Christmas to compete in the prestigious So Cal High School Classic.

“By that point, we should know exactly where we’re at,” Ganey said.

That will be good to know, as the Monarchs will have a week off before opening Trinity League play Jan. 6 against visiting St. John Bosco, followed by Jan. 11 at Servite, the two teams expected to battle it out for league title.

Ganey believes Mater Dei can be in the mix for a league championship. He also knows there’s little room for error in the talent-rich Trinity League

“It’s just so competitive,” he said. “From a talent standpoint and a coaching standpoint, everybody’s good at what they do, so it makes it difficult. Every game is close. You’ll very rarely see 6-1, 5-1.”