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Santa Monica High School Boys Varsity goalkeeper Michael Freedman makes a diving save to help preserve a victory over Hawthrone High School at John Admas Middle School which is the home field of the SAMO high boys soccer team on Wednesday January 28th 2009 as SAMO hosted Hawthrone in a Southern Sectional ocean league soccer game and won 5-2 to improve their to record to 2-2-1 in league play and 2-5-1 overall (photo by Byron Kennerly)

SAMOHI — Nobody ever said that defending a state title was easy.

Santa Monica High School’s boys soccer team manhandled the competition last season on the road to a California Interscholastic Federation championship over San Diego’s Poway High School.

This season has been, well, just a little different.

The Vikings stormed out to a 4-0 record in pre-season play, but that’s when the title defense fell off the tracks. A pair of ties and a loss came on the heels of the perfect start, humbling a team striving to step out from the shadow cast by last year’s dream season.

“We were struggling in the beginning,” head coach Serafin Rodriguez said. “We had some personality issues.”

With many of last year’s star players now taking to the pitch for college teams, this year’s team had to create its own identity. Midseason woes only heightened the issue.

After winning the pre-season finale, the team appeared ready to head into Ocean League play with a little momentum and a taste of confidence.

That bit of respite was fleeting as Morningside High School shutout out Samohi, 0-1, in the league opener. A tie and a loss later, and the Vikings were 0-2-1 in league play and looking like anything but a contender.

“[The players] thought that coming into this year, they didn’t have to do too much to win games in the Ocean League,” Rodriguez said. “But, we were beaten in league twice, which has not happened in a long time.”

The Vikings have traditionally been the class of the league, but the dismal start to this season’s Ocean schedule had the team at a loss for answers.

It was then that the clouds of losing began to part and a ray of hope shined through. The players decided it was time to hash out those so-called personality issues and save the season from mediocrity. They called a players-only meeting after a painful, 0-1, loss to rival Beverly Hills.

“I think that really brought us together,” senior sweeper Tyler Horton said. “We discussed some of our problems.

“Some of the players didn’t take practicing seriously. We just discussed that and how we could work better as a team.”

That fateful meeting paid immediate dividends. The Vikings went on a four-game winning streak, putting them back in the hunt for a league title and a favorable seeding in the playoffs.

Senior leaders stepped up.

Players like Juan Magana, who scored the winning goal in the title game against Poway last year, began playing with the urgency that Rodriguez felt his players needed to adopt. During that four-game streak, the Vikings scored 15 goals and limited opponents to just six. Junior goalie, Michael Freedman, was given a fair share of the credit by his coach and a league title appeared to be within their reach until losing, 0-1, to Beverly Hills on Friday.

Now, the Vikings will have to rally to win its remaining two games this season and get a little help from first place Inglewood. If Inglewood loses any of those games and Samohi wins out, the team will again wear the Ocean League crown. Even if the Vikings don’t win league, the top three finishers in the Ocean advance to the postseason.

But, before that happens, Rodriguez and his team will have to summon some of the mojo they conjured up during that midseason players-only meeting.

“On paper, we aren’t playing very strong teams,” Rodriguez said. “But, we have to take those games seriously.”

daniela@smdp.com