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Coaching turnover and player shortage derails Cuesta women’s soccer

A team photo of the 2022 Women’s Soccer team taken before their final preseason match. Photo by Cuesta College Athletics

The 2022-23 Cuesta College women’s soccer season did not go as planned, as they were forced to forfeit all 12 of their Western State Conference (WSC) games due to only having 12 available players.

After wrapping up their preseason with a 3-0 loss at Santa Rosa Junior College, the Cougars were gearing up for their regular season. Traveling to the game with the minimum number of players required to field a starting lineup, 11, the shorthanded team had their work cut out for them.

Only having 11 players, every player was forced to play all 90 minutes of the match. This earned them the nickname, ”The Magnificent 11.”

With WSC play opening four days following the loss to Santa Rosa, first year head coach Kaleb Lique Naitove had to make a difficult decision; endure a long, potentially punishing season with 12 active players on the roster, or forfeit the remaining games.

For reference, the Cal Poly women’s soccer team boasts 35 players on the roster. That would be enough to field three full teams, with two players left over. A roster of this size is a huge advantage not only in practice, but also tactically during games.

According to the National Institute of Health, players on average accumulate upwards of five miles traveled per soccer game. Going into an entire season with only 12 players on the roster was considered a massive risk. A roster this limited would force nearly the entire team to play the entire match, having only one substitute available.

Cuesta College’s athletic department had a very difficult choice to make. If the season were to be played, the team would only have one substitute available, forcing each player to play almost every minute of the campaign. However, if play was to be suspended for the season, the girls would be able to get their year of eligibility back.

“So an important part for us administratively was, you know, we suspended the program prior to them using a year of eligibility,” Cuesta College Athletic Director Robert Mariucci said.

Naitove was hired as the new head coach mere weeks before the season was set to kick off. Bob Wilson, the previous manager, had been patrolling the sideline for the last 27 seasons. Before the pandemic, Wilson had the Cougars’ rolling, clinching back-to-back playoff berths until the 2020 campaign was canceled.

After a tumultuous 4-12-2 season in 2021, Wilson decided to hang it up. Wilson was revered by many of his players.

”Bob was a great coach, [and a] great man,” said Taylor Kirk, a sophomore midfielder for the Cougars.

Originally hired as the sprint and speed coach for the Cuesta track team, Naitove’s background in the sport made him an ideal candidate. He played four seasons at Keene State, and spent an additional season playing soccer professionally.

Last season, the squad had 21 players on the roster, 19 being freshman. However, the last minute coaching vacancy, compounded with a lack of widespread promotion for tryouts and difficulties with academic eligibility led to the eventual forfeiture of the 2022-23 season for the Cuesta College women’s soccer team.