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Wide smiles and pride were beaming out of the Hawks women’s soccer players as they celebrated clinching the Coast North Conference title at Cabrillo last Thursday.

The hard work and dedication that they had put in over the last year had finally been rewarded — and it feels like this group could go on to achieve much more.

Eyes were being rolled after the Hawks went 3-5-1 in their non-conference schedule in August and September.

The common belief was that perhaps head coach Andrew Cumbo was in over his head after taking charge of the women’s team while coaching the men’s team at the same time. What was not taken into consideration was the strength of the schedule and the method to that madness.

Cumbo has emphasized, time and time again the importance of having a challenging schedule during non-conference play in order to prepare the players for what’s to come in the playoffs. This season was no different.

His Hawks faced some of the best that the state had to offer. The results didn’t quite show it, but there were signs there indicating that this group may be different to those which suffered first round playoff exits in recent years.

“Everything we did last spring has definitely helped us prepare for the conference play,” Cumbo said of his team’s carefully thought out schedule. “We played a super tough NCAA Division II Spring Schedule, the summer training program was hard, and the non-conference schedule this fall was very difficult.”

Out of nine non-conference fixtures, six of those came against higher ranked opposition for the Hawks, who are currently sitting at No. 19 in the California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA) state polls. Games at the highest level often come down to fine margins, and that was very much the case for the Hawks. But the foundation was being laid for what was to come in the league.

Fast forward a couple of months — the Hawks (8-0-2 Conf.) have just clinched the Coast North Conference title with a game to spare, steam roll- ing through all but two teams, and not having lost since Sept. 26. (Non-conference defeat to No. 1 ranked Lake Tahoe).

“Clinching that championship early was important for a number of reasons,” Cumbo said, praising his team’s consistency and desire to win.

“The most important thing was just for the team, their morale, their chemistry. As much as I can tell them they are a talented group, knowing you are actually a champion has a much bigger effect.”

Evidently, all of the components of the Hawks preparation regime are now paying dividends. After a comprehensive 3-0 victory at Cabrillo, the Hawks now have a chance to go undefeated in conference play for the second time in three seasons when they face De Anza on Nov. 13.

More than anything, the possibility of another undefeated league season emphasizes the strength of the program. But there is something in the way that the current group plays which suggests that they may be different — more equipped — than the playoff disappointments of the recent past.

This team embodies unity on and off the field. The camaraderie is evident from the bench to the field.

The players are committed to play for each other and are mutually determined to achieve something great this season. Those characteristics are often more valuable than talent.

Midfielder Leila Anzo, one of the Hawks standout players in their conference campaign, is a big advocate for her team’s tight knit bond. Anzo believes that other than staying focused on their ultimate goal, the team’s chemistry will be the key to making a deep run in the playoffs.

“It is key to keep our eyes on the prize and to play smart and as one,” Anzo said. “We are always playing for each other, no matter how far we go. And if we do that, I know that we will go far. I haven’t met a group of girls so determined and hungry to go all the way.”

It’s easy to rest on one’s laurels after reaching a major goal, but despite feeling immense pride in her team’s achievement,

Anzo believes that this group is “special” and capable of creating more history this season.

“We have worked so hard to get to where we are now,” Anzo said. “It still feels unreal to me (Conference Championship). The only way I can put it is that I am proud. But I know that this team is a special group and our journey is just beginning.”

Cumbo echoed his midfielder’s thoughts, emphasizing the need to remain focused and positive as the magnitude of games increases in the coming weeks.

“I’m excited that our season is extended,” Cumbo said. “The playoffs are where this team should be. Now, the key for us — as it has been all year — is to focus on ourselves, hit our objectives during games and remain positive and supportive throughout it all.”

The No. 7 seeded Hawks are set to host the No. 10 ranked Taft (5-4-1 Conf.) in the first round of the California Community College Athletic Association playoffs on Saturday, Nov. 23 at 5 p.m. in Livermore. The winner of this matchup will go on to face the winner of the clash between No. 2 San Joaquin Delta and No. 17 Reedley on Tuesday, Nov. 26.

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