The Berkeley High girls soccer team showed it belonged in elite company last season, and the Yellowjackets' polished play has continued.
The Yellowjackets have clinched their first West Alameda County Conference-Foothill Division championship and should be a factor again in the North Coast Section Division I playoffs, a division headed by the one-two Danville punch of Monte Vista and San Ramon Valley.
Berkeley (15-2-1, 13-0-1 WACC-Foothill) boasts dynamic senior center back Carlin Hudson and two 14-goal scorers -- junior Franny Cerny and senior Farah Otero-Amad.
Making Cerny's statistics more impressive is the fact that opponents focus on stopping her, which creates space for her teammates.
Berkeley has lost only to East Bay Athletic League teams California and Monte Vista this season. The Yellowjackets were eliminated by Monte Vista in the NCS semifinals last season, in heartbreaking fashion. Berkeley led 2-0 with 25 minutes remaining before Monte Vista rallied to tie it and prevailed in penalty kicks.
Berkeley coach Suzanne Sillett described the loss as "disappointing for the girls, for sure, but I think it convinced us that we can play at that level and compete against the best."
The Yellowjackets have two wins over Bishop O'Dowd this season -- an impressive feat considering the Dragons won the past two NCS Division II championships.
Sillett said a key to Berkeley's rise has been facing better competition in the two-year-old WACC. Berkeley had won 12 consecutive Alameda Contra Costa Athletic League titles but was not consistently challenged, thus making it less-prepared for playoff competition.
The WACC doesn't equal the EBAL, but the competition is strong enough to help teams keep their edge.
Berkeley had a slow start this season in part because of late-arriving club players.
"After the holiday break, we certainly raised our level," Sillett said. "We're starting to play really well."
Three weeks ago, Antioch's prospects of making the NCS Division I playoffs seemed bleak. The Panthers were 3-9-0 overall and had gone winless in their first two Bay Valley Athletic League games.
Since then, though, the Panthers have turned things around and have put themselves in a position to be seriously considered for a playoff spot.
"Once we crossed the threshold of playing simple soccer and as a unit, trusting each other and the younger kids on the team, we started seeing results," Antioch coach Bassam Altwal said. "We started having fun. Plus, in January, I got three players back who couldn't play based on grades. We started pressuring them on grades from the get-go, even players who didn't have the grades I made them practice with us all the time; when they got their grades they were ready and knew what to do."
And because those kids picked up right away with the team, Antioch has gone 5-1-1 in its past seven games and is in second place in the BVAL behind Pittsburg, which clinched the league title Tuesday with a 6-3 win over Liberty.
If Antioch gets into the playoffs, it could be dangerous.
"We will be the dark horse of the NCS; our (nonleague) season to me was a period to experiment and didn't really care about the results (which) gave lots of people the wrong impression about us," Altwal said. "Whoever wants to win NCS has to pass by us. The kids are coming together just in the right time; injuries permitting we will do well."
-- Matt Smith, correspondent