HAYWARD -- Its record may not reflect it, but the Cal State East Bay women's soccer team has made strides this season in the powerful California Collegiate Athletic Association.
The Pioneers (4-6-1, 2-6-1 CCAA) have dropped five conference games each by one goal. They are a respectable 2-3-1 over the past six games, including wins over Cal State Dominguez Hills and Cal State Monterey Bay.
"I think we're playing really well together. We're just having trouble finishing (scoring) right now," sophomore midfielder Ariana Gordon said. "But I think we're doing great. Every day in practice I feel like we are improving.
"We are a huge improvement over last year, so it's really good to see. I like it."
Cal State East Bay is paced by three senior captains -- center back Zuly Diaz, a Pinole Valley graduate, midfielder Kara Yamamoto, of Honolulu, Hi., a transfer from Saint Mary's College, and dynamite top scorer Shianna Falk (Littleton, Colo.).
The Pioneers, who have been outscored 9-6 over their past eight games, travel to first-place Sonoma State on Thursday. They host struggling Humboldt State at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Consider Gordon, a Heritage High graduate, an expert in helping teams come of age. She helped the Patriots surge to the North Coast Section Division I semifinals in the 2010-11 season as the sixth seed, before they fell 1-0 to powerful San Ramon Valley.
"She's great. She's definitely stepping up," Pioneers coach Amy Gerace said recently of Gordon, who scored her second goal of the season in a 2-1 loss to San Francisco State on Sept. 28. "It takes a lot of players a year to kind of understand what this level is like. I think Ariana caught up pretty quickly.
"In the spring she really showed a lot of growth and maturity. ... She's versatile. She's definitely a physical presence on the field."
Typical of their season, the Pioneers dropped two very competitive games last week at home, 2-1 to Chico State and 1-0 to No. 8 ranked Cal State Stanislaus.
"Stanislaus is a good team and I thought we did a good job," Gerace said in a school release. "I'm proud of our team for being in every game this season."
Forward Eugenie Foote, a College Park graduate and transfer from Humboldt State, has put her best foot forward. She scored in a 3-1 loss to No. 6 Sonoma State on Sept. 9, and had the game-winning goal in a 2-1 nonconference win over Notre Dame de Namur on Sept. 5.
"I definitely have a lot of faith in our team this year," Foote said recently. "We have a lot of solid players that have returned. I think we match up with all the teams in the conference pretty well, and we'll continue to develop as the season goes on."
Gerace appreciates her team's collective drive and unity.
"I really have enjoyed working with this group. They're very responsive," Gerace said last month. "They know when it's time to work and they know when it's time to play, and they have a fun time on the field together."
A Richmond native, Diaz models her game after Brazilian superstar Marta, who played at Pioneer Stadium with the champion FC Gold Pride in the now-defunct Women's Professional Soccer league.
Diaz had a typically brilliant effort in a 1-0 loss to Chico State on Sept. 18, and Pioneers goalkeeper Nina Cefalo (Foothill) had four saves.
"She's a dynamite player," Gerace said of Diaz. "This year she's just matured so much. She's really stepped up as a leader. She does such a good job of organizing us in the back. The team responds very well to her."
Gerace has said she expects the Pioneers to challenge for a spot in the playoffs.
"This team is really motivated," Gerace said. "They have set very high goals for themselves. ... The players know what it takes in a tough conference. They know it takes relentless play, day in and day out. No one's going to give you anything."