Despite 2 NCS titles in 5 seasons, Dublin soccer still plays with a chip on its shoulder
Story by MATT SMITH | Photo by BERRY EVANS III
When James Fulwiler became the coach of the boys soccer program at Dublin High, there was not exactly a pedigree.
The program had no North Coast Section or league titles to speak of, and was two years removed from its only playoff appearance in the 2004-2005 season.
Then came the first two seasons, which saw the Gaels manage just eight wins in 40 matches. But finally, a plan was put in place. One that would build a program. Since then, Dublin has won 108 matches in eight seasons, claimed two NCS Division II titles and posted five 15-win seasons.
And it all started with the 2008-2009 season, and being shunned from the playoffs.
Dublin went 13-5-6 that season after back-to-back four-win seasons, and by all accounts, should have been a playoff team. But at that time, the playoff teams and seeds were determined by coaches’ votes, and the unknown Gaels were left out.
“The year before we won our first NCS Championship we were 13-5-6 and we couldn’t get a seeding. We never forgot that,” Fulwiler said. “Our team came back the next year with a goal of setting our own destiny. Those seniors won league and then won an NCS title. They established the culture of winning regardless of opponent or circumstance.”
Since beating Bishop O’Dowd-Oakland in a penalty shootout on its home field in the 2010 NCS final, it’s been a very good run for the Gaels. The next season saw them reach the NCS semifinals and the season after that saw them earn the No. 3 seed before losing in the second round.
“The legacy and tradition of winning continues to be driven by each year’s senior class,” Fulwiler said. “The camaraderie that exists within our program drives the heart and spirit of each year’s team. We have a lot of traditions that continue to fuel the brotherhood of our program.”
Only 2013 saw them struggle a bit, going 8-9-4 with a first-round playoff exit. Still, the expectation of winning had been established.
“That (first) championship validated our program,” Fulwiler said. “It was the catapult that moved us from just another high school to the status of annual contender. It told us that what we were doing, the systems that we implemented, the style of play that we use, works.”
And just in case there were any doubts, Dublin erased them in 2014. The Gaels won another Div. II title from the same playoff positioning, the No. 3 seed, and on the same field in Dublin they had done it on four years prior.
But to this day, the Gaels go into every big match with the feeling of being underestimated, as a paper tiger who will be easily exposed. And this keeps them hungry.
“We started coveting the underdog role because we knew we weren’t a private or affluent school with unlimited resources,” Fulwiler said. “We knew we weren’t a large school with a large talent pool to draw from, so we had to create a culture of us being the underdog with no reputation for success. This forced us to work harder, demand more of ourselves, and look only to ourselves for inspiration. We established our own logo, culture, mission statement and legacies.”
This attitude, this approach of always feeling like the underdog came in very handy a season ago, when Dublin truly was the underdog. The enrollment of the school made the Gaels a Division I school, meaning they’d have to play teams like De La Salle-Concord, Pittsburg, Berkeley and the Danville schools of Monte Vista and San Ramon Valley.
A season with 13 wins, and just three losses in 24 regular season matches, saw them earn just the No. 13 seed that first Div. I season. The proverbial smack in the face resonated with the Gaels.
They beat fourth-seeded Pittsburg — the only non-East Bay Athletic League school to win a Div. I title in the last decade — in the first round. In the second round, against No. 5 College Park-Pleasant Hill, it seemed the ride was over as the Gaels trailed 3-0 in the second half, on the road. But Dublin scored three goals to force overtime, and stunned the Falcons on penalty kicks.
The ride ended in the semifinals against eventual-champion San Ramon Valley, but the gauntlet had been thrown down: the Gaels are a Division I title contender. They have a win over Monte Vista and a draw against SRV to their credit this season to prove they’re a team to pay attention to when the NCS playoffs get underway on Feb. 17.
“It won’t be easy, and there are a lot of great teams that can win it all this year,” said Fulwiler, whose team boasted a 12-3-1 record through Jan. 15. “We are fast, dynamic, big and physical. This may be the fastest and most united team we have ever fielded. We have the offense to score goals; we have the defense to shut out teams. We are coming to the tournament with the objective of winning this year.”
The talent is there, with scoring threats in Navid Khamush and Ali Amin, strong defenders in Ryan Murray and Stefen Dillon, and the return of senior forward Suliman Khorami, who is back after a year with the Earthquakes Academy.
“We all have confidence in ourselves which reflects on the field,” Khamush said. “When we walk on the field, we have a certain level that we are expected to play at and our coaches expect nothing less. So we aim to play above their expectations and that gives us confidence.”
That confidence has remained, despite the jump up to Division I a season ago.
“Going from Division II to Division I was different for sure,” Dillon said. “The divisions play in different ways. Division II plays a more physical game, and relies on that to win games, whereas Division I is a more finesse type of play. (Teams) would rather juke you out instead of body you up. But we as a team don’t look at what division they are in, we feel like we have the ability and the potential to beat any team we play, as long as we stick to our game plan and play Dublin soccer.”
And playing Dublin soccer might just lead them to reach new heights in the realm of North Coast Section soccer. No team has won titles in both divisions since it became a two-division format in 2001.
“We are working really hard to give ourselves at least a chance to compete for the title,” Fulwiler said. “We know it will take luck, health and perhaps a little spark of magic, but we are hungry and we will show up for the tournament.”
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