This season, however, had the potential to be even better. Among the returning players were senior Adriana Cortes, the team's leading scorer, and senior Massiel Castellanos, who led the team in scoring her freshman and sophomore seasons before missing much of last year with a stress fracture.
The X Factor this year was to be freshman Mariana Galvan, a member of the U.S. National 15-under Team. Priory, however, lost her to a season-ending injury before the year even started. Other returning players suffered injuries, as well, as the campaign got off to a slow start.
Before the Panthers opened play in the West Bay Athletic League (Foothill Division), they were sitting on a 2-4-4 record. To make matters worse, the school's grass field was deemed unplayable due to heavy rains. That forced the team to travel each day to practice, most at Marlin Park in Redwood Shores when the Mayfield Soccer Complex in Palo Alto wasn't available.
"Sometimes we even used our basketball gym for practice," said Priory coach Armando del Rio. "It's been a season of improvisation."
And, perhaps, it's a season that's gathering steam for the Panthers following their somewhat surprising 4-0 victory over first-place Sacred Heart Prep on Tuesday. The triumph kept Priory (4-1-2, 6-5-6) tied for second place with Menlo (4-1-2, 10-2-3), both with 14 points. It also prevented the Gators (6-1, 11-4-2) from moving a win away from clinching their second straight division title.
Sacred Heart Prep needed to beat Menlo on Thursday to set up a possible title-clinching win over visiting Mercy-Burlingame next Tuesday.
Priory and Menlo are mathematically still alive for the WBAL crown. If the Panthers sweep their final three, they finish with 23 points. If the Knights were able to beat SHP and win out, they finish with 23 points. Should the Gators fall to Menlo, they'll have to win their final two to successfully defend with 24 points. Should Sacred Heart, however, finish 1-1-1, Priory and Menlo will share the title.
"The league title is important to us," del Rio said, "but the automatic (CCS) berth is more important. We don't want to play that playoff game."
The third-place finisher in the WBAL Foothill Division will play the winner of the Skyline Division, with the victor advancing to CCS as the third team from the WBAL. Sacred Heart can help Priory in that regard by beating Menlo.
All three Foothill Division teams should advance to the postseason, as they did last season. Priory ended up losing to No. 1 seed Santa Cruz and Menlo fell to Sacred Heart Prep, both in the quarterfinals. The Gators ended up winning the CCS Division III title, the program's first ever as then-sophomore Abby Dahlkemper scored two goals in a 2-1 victory.
Dahlkemper has been in Sunrise, Fla., this week training with the U.S. National U-17 team. She missed Sacred Heart's loss to Priory on Tuesday, but is expected to return on Saturday. Should she be invited back to the U-17 team in two weeks and makes the squad, it's possible she could miss the CCS championship match due to her competing with the national squad at the CONCACAF U-17 Women's Championship in Costa Rica from March 9-20 -- the qualifying tournament for the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup in September.
That's a lot of ifs, ands and buts at this point. Bottom line, anything can happen in the postseason and that leaves the door open like a muddy field did on Tuesday. The sloppy field condition, in fact, nearly prevented the match from behind held. Sacred Heart Prep coach Jake Moffat, however, went ahead despite less-than-desirable conditions that Moffat said was a huge difference in the outcome.
"The field was 100 percent a factor," Moffat said. "On this field today, they were the better team — on this field today. Hopefully, we'll get another chance to play them again on a neutral field."
When Priory took a 1-0 lead with about 14:50 left in the opening half on a goal by Castellanos, the pressure was on SHP. Castellanos made the Gators' task more difficult when she scored again with 11:47 left in the first half after maneuvering around the defense and pounding a shot into the upper right corner of the net for a 2-0 halftime lead.
With 24 minutes left in the match, Priory put the match out of reach when Castellanos made a run down the left side and crossed it to sophomore Alyson Perna, who beat her defender to the ball and somehow found the back of the net for a 3-0 lead. With the match in injury time, Cortes lofted a free kick from about 30 yards out and into the upper right corner of the net past a leaping SHP keeper Chris Sours, who tumbled into the cage with the ball as the Panthers grabbed an insurmountable 4-0 lead on the cloudy, rainy day.
"At times it was slower," del Rio said of the field. "But, this was our first home game. We're not more accustomed to playing on it then they thought we were. Honestly, I think they (SHP) were more focused on the field than we were."
Priory clearly appeared more comfortable in the sloppy conditions and did a good job of controlling the action, despite missing sophomore Darrah Shields, the team's No. 2 scorer. She sat with a sprained ankle.
Priory' defenders like Melissa Perna, Molly Simpson and Alex Schnabel, among others, kept SHP scoring leader Lizzy Weisman in check.
The victory was Priory's first over Sacred Heart Prep after four straight loses.
"Today, we got over the mental aspect of Sacred Heart beating us four times in row," del Rio said. "To get over that today was important."
In other WBAL (Foothill Division) action Tuesday:
In San Bruno, Menlo School remained in a tie for second place with a 4-1 victory over host Mercy-Burlingame at Skyline College in San Bruno. Senior Katie Baum scored twice while senior Mila Sheeline and freshman Maya Norman found the net once each.
In Palo Alto, Castilleja (3-1-1, 7-4-1) kept its slim playoff hopes alive with a 4-1 win over Notre Dame-San Jose at Mayfield Soccer Complex. Sophomore Emily Mosbacher scored three goals for the Gators while Martha Harding added one.
In the SCVAL De Anza Division that was a rematch of last season's CCS Division I championship match, host Palo Alto and defending section champ Monta Vista battled to a 1-1 draw on Tuesday. The Matadors (5-1-2, 11-2-2) remained atop the division while the Vikings (3-3-1, 6-5-2) stayed in fourth place. Senior Maeve Stewart provided the tying goal for Paly late in the second half.
Also in the SCVAL De Anza Division, last-place Gunn (0-5-2, 2-8-3) tied host Homestead in a sloppy match on a sloppy, wet field.
In the PAL Bay Division, visiting Menlo-Atherton (4-4-1, 8-5-2) fell back in the race following a 5-1 loss to second-place Aragon on Tuesday. M-A's Vanessa Renkel scored on a long assist from Mallory Stevens, but the Bears' defense had no answer for Aragon's prolific offense.