By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
Gunn High graduate Daniel Tirosh was only eight years old when he joined the Palo Alto Soccer Club's Blue 93 Panthers. Every year the team made steady progress, from being ranked among the top 50 in the nation to the top 10.
And now, to an even loftier status -- No. 1.
"It's been a long time coming," Tirosh, now 18, said of his boys' 18-U club team's latest ranking by gotsoccer.com. "It's very cool. We've just slowly moved up over the years. It's quite a journey."
The Blue 93 Panthers earned the nation's top spot in their division after capturing the Far West Region tournament title on June 26 in Boise, Idaho. That gave them enough points to vault them past defending national champ Alpharetta Ambush 93 Red of Georgia.
"The ranking is based on points, but we're tying to prove it on the field," Tirosh said. "We need to win the national championship to prove ourselves."
The Blue 93 Panthers will get that opportunity when it competes in the national tournament that runs July 27-31 in Phoenix, Ariz. The Panthers will be tested right away by No. 2-ranked Alpharetta Ambush 93 Red in the opening round.
"We kind of like that because our team gets up for the big games," Tirosh said. "We figure we have to play them sometime, so why not right away?"
Tirosh, who will head off to UC Santa Cruz in the fall, said the national tournament will be like ending a chapter in his life.
"The national championship game is kind of like the climax of my childhood," he said. "After the tournament, our family will be going on vacation (to Hawaii) and then I'll be going off to college. Hopefully, we can end this chapter with a national title."
Palo Alto, the Northern California champion, qualified for the national tourney by winning the Far West Region title by beating state champs from Hawaii, Nevada and Utah in addition to beating the Southern California champ twice. The second win over the SoCal team came on penalty kicks in the regional championship match. That provided Palo Alto with enough points to be No. 1.
"It's definitely pretty cool to see our name at the top because we've been stuck in the top five for a while," said recent Palo Alto grad Mark Raftrey. "But the ranking isn't everything because the system has to rank so many teams that it can't actually watch teams play and rank them based on how well they play. Also, we haven't played many teams from outside our region to compare ourselves to, so we can't call ourselves the best unless we win the national championship."
Palo Alto obviously is looking forward to doing that.
"Our coach (Rob Becerra) has always had two expectations before any game," said Gunn High senior Sam Hayward, one of only two current high school players on the team. "One, that we give 100 perfect effort and, two, that we win. We have all bought into our coach's system and it has worked to perfection.
"Before the regional final, our assistant coach B.J. Noble, who has helped us tremendously over the years, reminded us before that game that a leader is only as strong as the pack. To understand how our team operates, you could sort of compare us to a tightly knit mob, in that we know that the group's strength is far more important than any individual talent."
Hayward said the team had some extra motivation heading into the regional finale.
"We were all inspired to win at regionals, not only because we wanted that first-place prize, but because a few of our players had been injured recently and we all wanted them to play another game wearing a Palo Alto jersey."
The tourney title gave the Panthers a 33-2-3 record this season and a winning percentage of 86.8. Palo Alto has 21,187 points while the second-place Alpharetta Ambush 93 Red of Georgia has 20,054. Those are the only club teams in the nation, in the 18-U division, that have won over 71 percent of their matches.
The Panthers have scored 103 goals in 38 matches while allowing 22. The team has won four major tournaments since last August -- the Santa Clara Sporting Invitational, NorCal Cup, California North State Cup and the Regional IV championship. Palo Alto also was a finalist at the San Diego Surf College Cup.
"Basically the core of the team has been together since middle school and they play very well as a team, said John Raftrey, one of two team managers. "Nine different players scored at regionals; we don't really have a superstar."
Some of the players will be playing in college this fall: Riley Hanley (Mountain View) at St Mary's; Mackie Kelly (Mountain View) and Zac Hummel (Palo Alto) at UC Santa Cruz; Mark Raftrey (Palo Alto) at Pomona College; Grahame Fitz (Summit Prep) at University of Redlands; and Miguel Vazquez (Half Moon Bay) at Notre Dame du Namur. Jose Mendoza is already at UNLV and Fernando Salazar at Foothill.
Other team members include Trevor Assaf (Crystal Springs grad), Cameron McElfresh (current Gunn), Andrew Wohl (Gunn grad), Yatam Kasznik (Gunn grad), Juan Gamez (Mission, S.F., grad), Ian Leung (St. Francis grad), Even Coutre (St. Francis grad), A.J. Beloff (Carlmont grad) and Ricky Minno (Palo Alto grad).
"To be on this team for nine years, and to have most of our success come at the very end of our team's run, could not feel any sweeter," Hayward said. "Our motivation to improve has always been very high and, although we went through a real rough patch a few years back, we never had any doubt that we could one day be the best team in the country."
In addition to the talented coaches the team has had over the years, team managers John Raftrey and Gal Tirosh also have made a big contribution.
"John Raftrey and Gal Tirosh have always been there for the team and are really the two architects behind everything that we have accomplished," said Hayward. "Nothing would be possible today without these two masterminds working the strings behind the scenes."
The Panthers will spend the next few weeks training at the Cubberley Community Center while preparing for the national championships.
"All of us are proud to represent the City of Palo Alto, a city a lot of us have grown up in our whole life," Hayward said. "We have not always been the most athletic, the strongest, or the most technically skilled team but our commitment to one another has always been there. We all back one another up and, more importantly, believe in one another.
"Looking at most of our players you wouldn't expect us to ever reach this far," continued Hayward. "Lots of us were not recruited heavily and no one really stands out on the team as a superstar. But, combine our strengths, competitive attitudes, and desire to be the best, and you have one unstoppable team. To be No. 1 in the nation is a stellar feeling. But, it doesn't mean much at this point since we still have four games to go to prove to everyone that we deserve it."