Millikan girls’ soccer coach Tino Nunez knew something wasn’t right.
His two-time defending Moore League champion Rams were struggling out of the gate despite a ton of talent on the field, starting the season 0-3-2, and being outscored 10-5. Worse, the team was outscored 5-2 by Wilson and Poly in their first two big league games, losing 3-0 to the Bruins and salvaging a 2-2 draw with the Jackrabbits with two goals in the game’s final minutes.
It wasn’t just the losses, though, it was the way his team was playing–namely, not like a team.
“It’s all about being a team, we always preach that,” he said. “Be together, stay together–we preach it, we believe it. But we weren’t doing it, we weren’t a team.”
Nunez recognized the major hurdle and went so far as to cancel a nonleague game, opting instead to hold a team bonding day.
“We did a bonfire at the beach,” said Millikan senior Courtney Cummings, the Brown-bound forward who led the team in goals this year. “We did a lot of team building and we really connected that way–we put in the work to do that. And I think that really helped us.”
Nunez wasn’t content to let a one-night bonfire be the only change. He started requiring that players say hi to each individual other player on the team when they arrived at practice, and the team started holding outdoors pre-game pasta dinners on each others’ front lawns.
“We needed a big kumbaya,” he said. “Our early games exposed that we weren’t on the same page. It’s really difficult to build as a team this year because the kids had no interaction at school, they couldn’t do anything together. So we had to get over that disconnect–and I think you could see the difference.”
After starting 0-3-2 with the frustrating results against their league rivals, Millikan finished the regular season 9-0, outscoring their opponents 68-2. After having been outscored by Poly and Wilson 5-2 in their first meetings, they outscored them 6-1 in the second round, winning both games. The turnaround gave Millikan its third straight league championship, the first time in program history they’ve accomplished that.
“I don’t think they knew what hit them,” said Nunez.
“We were a totally different team in the second round,” said Cummings.
The need for the switch wasn’t just emotional, it was tactical. Nunez’s approach to the game was one that he learned while a four-time league champion himself at Millikan, playing for legendary Rams coach Rod Petkovic. While a dominant forward at Millikan, Nunez absorbed Petkovic’s tactics, based on a strong back line defense and an athletic counterattack.
“Being a forward, you think I’d coach really offensively, but playing here taught me that if you’re defensively sound, you’re always going to have a chance in these big games especially,” said Nunez. “So we always say that goals win games, but defense wins championship. But our approach means the girls have to trust each other and want to play for each other because it’s a system.”
For Cummings, the whole journey this year was meant to be, from the struggles at the beginning of the season to coming together and then going on an epic run to win the title and grab the Moore League’s top seed heading into this week’s playoffs, where the Rams open at home Wednesday against JSerra at 5 p.m.
“I’ve kept telling myself, there’s a reason we tied Poly, there’s a reason we came back and tied it,” she said. “We just kept working and believing and playing for each other, and now here we are.”