Brian VanderBeek

Cougars camp loaded with competition

STOCKTON -- Other California Cougars players were figuring out where to have lunch or carpooling back to the team hotel, but Mike Gonzales had a more pressing issue.

He had to make it back to school, and in a hurry.

Gonzales is one of about 60 players in training camp with the Cougars this week, and the only one still in high school. The Hilmar High senior needed to be in class Monday afternoon or miss his chance to play for the Yellowjackets in Monday night's match at Patterson.

"I really don't expect to make the team," said Gonzales, who also kicks for the Hilmar football team. "I'm just here to learn and get better. The indoor game helps my outdoor game because this is so much faster. The high school game is so much easier now."

The Cougars, Stockton's entry in the Major Indoor Soccer League, didn't invite Gonzales just for the publicity. But he's a symbol of the team's efforts to scout and develop local talent -- a major part of the team's new creed of wanting long-term success, now.

Under Manteca owner Jim Rachels and head coach Bernie Lilavois, the Cougars have reinvented their entire operation. They started a developmental team, the Stockton Pumas, which won the Premier Arena Soccer League title in July.

Many of those players were wearing white uniforms Monday to differentiate themselves from the black-clad players already under contract.

"There are all those guys in white T-shirts out there trying to make a roster and 12 guys in black who already have contracts," said Lilavois, who took over the team in midseason last year upon the firing of Troy Dayak. "Competition makes you better, and in the past, whoever was in the training camp was on the roster. There was nothing to compete for."

The team will debut this Saturday with an exhibition match against the Stars of Mexico at Stockton Arena. Lilavois will shave the roster to about 30 names after the match, then will narrow it again to the final 21 before the MISL opener Oct. 27 at Chicago.

Monday's media day was like so many others on every level of every sport. In the preseason, everybody talks about winning championships. But the sheer number of players on the green indoor turf indicates the depth of the Cougars' conviction.

"The atmosphere this year is so different with all the new guys out there," player-coach Antonio Sutton said. "All the guys in training camp are pushing the guys who already are here. Everyone has to compete for a job. Nothing is a given, and that will help us stay in the competitive mind frame."

Gone are the days when team management had to work the phones in the days before the opener just to find players to fill the rosters. Those efforts produced a 10-20 record in the Cougars' first season and a 7-23 mark last year.

"This season's not a little different, it's 180 degrees different," Rachels said. "We're here to win a championship. Everything we've done in the offseason has been an improvement over the past. We're running this like a business, like it's supposed to be."

There were other familiar faces among the white shirts. Former Cal State Stanislaus athlete Hugo Brambila is battling for a roster spot, as is Oscar Ramos, who coaches at the Turlock Indoor Arena.

At 31, Ramos is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Gonzales. Ramos, who played for a national championship with the Stanislaus County Cruisers in August 1998, sees this as perhaps his last chance to play professionally.

"I played all season with Bernie on the Pumas, and he knows what I can do," Ramos said. "I'm hoping to be on this roster. The young players have the heart and the agility, but having the experience can help out a lot."

Another familiar face stood at the far side of the floor with the black shirts. Enrique Tovar broke into professional soccer with the California Gold four years ago, and last year led the Cougars in scoring.

Tovar is under contract. Players like Brambila, Ramos and most of the others can only sweat, hustle and hope to catch the eye of Lilavois -- who already knows what he wants from the team that emerges from training camp.

"In the past, we talked about two-year and three-year plans," Lilavois said. "But this is an immediate plan. Now's the time to win. Anything less than a championship will be a disappointment. That's the level I want the players to shoot for."

Lilavois probably doesn't know it, but Gonzales, at 17, already has MISL experience. Early last season, he was the kid hustling to help set up the Cougars' locker room before home games.

"I came to a few games and filled up the water bottles and laid out their jerseys in front of their lockers," said the young Yellowjacket who would like to be a Cougar.

"Playing is a lot more fun than hanging up jerseys."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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