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The 5-1-2 mark the Freedom High Falcons soccer team posted in the Bay Valley Athletic League was good enough for a league championship last year. This year’s Falcons are hopeful that last year’s success was only the beginning.

Freedom’s team has been one of the best in the area for a long time. While there was no North Coast Section tournament last season, the last time one was held and Freedom wasn’t a part of it, the current players were young children. The underclassmen weren’t even elementary school age. But when practice on Tuesday, Jan. 4 ended, this year’s Falcons laid out their goals; one of them was to accomplish something that no Freedom team has ever done.

“Their goal -- as defending champions -- is to be the first team at Freedom to go back to back,” coach Sal Acevedo said. “And to make NCS. We’ve done that for 12 straight years and want to keep that streak. Want to be disciplined -- to not earn any red cards and keep yellow cards to a minimum. I thought that was really good. And we’d like to have an NCS home game. We have to finish as a high seed, top 5.”

While the league schedule has yet to get underway, the early returns have been positive for the Falcons -- although things started inauspiciously. Freedom opened the season on Dec. 6 with a 4-1 loss to Dougherty Valley. Two days later, the Falcons met Foothill and had the same 4-1 result, only on the right end of it. Freedom then defeated Kennedy 4-1 and De Anza 2-1 in its next two games.

Most coaches would be happy with a 3-1 start. Acevedo, though, was particularly pleased to see the Falcons bounce back after a lackluster opener.

“It’s one of the things that we always work on -- the mindset to find ways to deal with adversity,” he said. “That game dealt us so many things that we knew we needed to work on. We came back strong, made no excuses and held ourselves accountable, knowing we’re better than what we showed on the field.”

“We knew it was one of those games, we put it behind us, took the positives we can,” Acevedo added. “For them to bounce back and win three in a row, it tells us as coaches that they did just that. They bounced back from that first game like we’d want them to.”

The Falcons have been a strong, balanced team through the early games. Junior striker Elias Castro leads the team with three goals. He and senior striker Dominic Gamero are the only Freedom players with more than one goal but four others have one. The assists have been similar. Senior center-mid Angel Rondan leads the team with two while five other players have one.

Rondan, a captain, has been one of the integral players to the Falcons early success, controlling the midfield with his strong ball handling and recovery skills. Acevedo said that junior midfielder-defender Juan Diego Botello has played more minutes than anyone in the team, playing an efficient game and knowing when to take risks and when to be more conservative. Junior right-back Mark Salgado, meanwhile, has been one of the top Falcons at transitioning.

Acevedo has also been impressed by the team’s depth. He’s spent much of the time during preseason games and practices trying to figure out what the starting lineup will be when the BVAL season gets going.

“We’re figuring out some positions, and some are still up for grabs,” he said. “Players are fighting for starting positions and playing time. We have a lot of depth. Practice has been really competitive, the most it’s been in probably five years. We have at least two players fighting for every spot.”

Acevedo sees a good attitude with his team.

“We see a lot of positivity and guys happy to be out there,” he said. “But we’re still struggling. We still don’t have all the resources. But the fact that we’re having a normal season, that we have NCS to look forward to, that alone has the boys motivated.”

The BVAL schedule will get underway on Wednesday, Jan. 12 with a 6 p.m. home game against an Antioch team that, like Freedom has, enjoyed a strong preseason.

While Freedom’s goal is to repeat as league champions, Acevedo knows that doing so will require the Falcons to be at their best every time they step onto the pitch.

“As always, I think when league (play) starts, games are different,” Acevedo said. “The intensity and rivalry make for competitive games. Pittsburg is always strong. I haven’t seen them but I’ve been really surprised at Antioch. It looks like they’re having a nice run. You can’t take anyone lightly. My expectations for us is that every team is going to play us hard, especially as defending champions. We have to be ready for that. We have to be at our best.”

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