LAKE ELSINORE ---- Jessica Nelson is used to dealing with stress by now. The about-face she has directed with Temescal Canyon's girls soccer program hasn't relieved it much, either.
Sure, the league losses that piled up last year have become wins. Yes, the Titans have celebrated their first title since 2003.
That hasn't made life any easier on the second-year coach. Not even after the Titans legitimized their 2010-11 campaign with a midseason victory over defending Sunbelt League-champion Lakeside.
"My husband's first words to me were, ‘How does it feel to have a target on your back?'" Nelson said. "I said it felt great ... but I've never been more stressed in the season."
Not that Nelson and the Titans haven't enjoyed every minute of it.
A year removed from a one-win season in the Southwestern league, Temescal Canyon stormed to the top of the Sunbelt League, winning its first nine matches in the circuit before suffering its lone loss last Friday. But even that 3-2 loss to the second-place Lancers couldn't put the brakes on the momentum of a team making a triumphant return to the postseason under the direction of a young coach leading a young team.
"Last year wasn't so great," said forward Silvia Beas, one of three seniors who'll be on the field when the Titans (12-9-2, 9-1) open the CIF Southern Section Division V playoffs on Friday against the San Bernardino-La Quinta winner. "But this year we've improved so much. We came from being at the lowest to being champs ---- being No. 1. I'm so proud of the team and so happy that this happened my senior year."
Nelson, of course, is at the center of this revival.
A former NCAA Division I recruit in soccer, she had her fifth knee surgery shortly after graduating from Oregon and she took her first varsity coaching gig with the Titans shortly after becoming a mother. With the Titans, Nelson made discipline and accountability a top priority when she took the position last season and her new players took her mandates to heart throughout a one-win season in their final Southwestern League campaign.
Sure, Temescal Canyon missed the playoffs yet again. But the Titans improved throughout the season while looking to the future and thriving off the field.
The team's cumulative grade-point average, for instance, was recognized as the highest for a girls soccer team in Riverside County, Nelson said.
"From the years before, I felt like this program wasn't serious enough," Beas said. "It wasn't organized. ... Once Nelson came in, everything fell into place. ... She always stays on top of us, always tried to make us a better team and never gave up on us. She's always pushing us to do our best."
Nelson's preparation for the 2010-11 season included scheduling a tough preseason this year against Division I and Division II teams, despite the team's move down in division and league against like-schools. The Titans took their lumps then only to be rewarded during a Sunbelt League campaign that has seen them develop into one of the circuit's more offensive teams.
Temescal Canyon has already scored 11 more goals than it did a year ago, with junior Kayla Tucker (17 goals, 9 assists) rivaling Lakeside junior MacKenzie Akins (21 goals, 7 assists) as the Sunbelt League's top scoring threat.
"There was no doubt she was a college-material kid," Nelson said of Tucker, who has verballed to Boise State. " ... The kid has fantastic footwork and speed, and she understands the game of soccer and plays a calm game of soccer."
Beas (eight goals), sophomore Gabrielle Baca (six goals), senior Annie Singleton (five goals) and junior Ashley Thomas (two goals) have developed into key pieces alongside Tucker and freshman Maegan Arias has emerged as a capable stopper in front of the net.
"We're having a lot of fun," Tucker said. "We've improved and as a team we've become really close."
That much became clear when Tucker recorded a hat trick when the Titans officially announced their arrival with a 4-3 victory in January that snapped Lakeside's 25-game unbeaten streak in league. She then matched Beas' and Singleton' two goals in an 8-0 victory over Perris that clinched the league title and added two more scores in last week's 3-2 loss to the Lancers.
The loss didn't affect the Titans' standing in the league. Just the same, Nelson arrived to practice the next day to see her girls as determined as ever as they head into their playoff matchup this week.
"They are focused," Nelson said. "They are angry. They don't like to lose. ... If anything, they are refocused now."