Scoring good grades as well as winning goals on the soccer field is the focus of the Bay Oaks Botafogo 96’ team – a dominant team of girls whose name honors a fabled Brazilian squad.
Bishop O’Dowd High School students Sophia Natsues, Stephanie Zuniga, Haley Nishimoto, and Aerial Chavarin all play for Botafogo, part of the Bay Oaks United soccer unit of the East Bay United Soccer Club (EBUSC).
The Bay Oaks Botafogo youth soccer team has a prestigious reputation and a winning tradition not only in Northern California, but also nationally.
Zuniga, who is the team’s captain and top goal scorer, credits team harmony and superb coaching for their record of wins and titles.
“We know each other so well,” Zuniga said. “We read each other’s minds. I can say that about any of my teammates. Even though we play different positions, we still are able to connect on and off the field.”
However, success has not come without a price for the Oakland team. Playing in six grueling and competitive tournaments every year has already cost three players torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs) and the team is rallying to regroup around their injured teammates even as they maintain their scholarly achievements.
Zuniga along with Haley Nishimoto, are two of three players on the team that suffered ACL tears.
Standing at about five feet tall, Zuniga suffered a complete ACL and a medial collateral ligament (MCL) tear in her left knee on Nov. 11 in a San Diego regional showcase game. She is expected to be sidelined for about eight to 12 months, and is scheduled to have surgery on Dec. 19.
Haley Nishimoto on the other hand, has successfully recovered from her torn ACL and has been playing for the last three months.
Coach Jon Nishimoto does double duty leading the varsity Women’s soccer team at Bishop O’Dowd and the Botafogo 96’ team, which over the last couple of years has racked up 129 wins, claimed the California Youth Soccer Association two years in a row, and finished in third place at the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships in July.
Coach Nishimoto said that he is interested to see how the team will respond with the recent injuries to Zuniga’s knee.
“Stephanie and Aerial were two of the top ten goal scorers at the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships,” he said. “Zuniga was voted by all of the opposing teams as one of the top 11 overall players in the tournament. She’s an impactful player, has been a huge part of our offense for many years, and is also our most vocal leader. In losing her, we lose a lot of our offense production.”
But Nishimoto’s drive doesn’t end with scoring goals. He wants all of his 20 players to get the opportunity to go to college either through soccer or for academics.
So far, four girls have received athletic scholarships for soccer. Zuniga and midfielder Erin Greening have committed to play for the University of Colorado, while defender Addison Wallace is going to play at Villanova, and defender Ashlynn Jones is headed to Cal State Stanislaus.
“We are fortunate that we have good coaches,” Zuniga said. “The team has had a huge impact on me. The relationship is one of a kind. It is more than just a soccer team. I can’t imagine my life without Botafogo.”
Of the 20 girls on the Botafogo 96’ roster, half are from Oakland and the other half are from other surrounding cities. As a result, the team’s chemistry is unusual among Bay Area squads.
Junior defender Natsues, junior forward Zuniga and junior midfielder Haley Nishimoto, along with sophomore forward Chavarin, are best friends, who have played together throughout much of their childhood.
“Bay Oaks is like another family for me,” Chavarin said. “It is a second home. It is a good place where you can regroup and release your stress.”
Haley Nishimoto agrees with Chavarin and said that she also appreciates the fact that all the teams in the CYSA league are constantly testing them.
“It is so easy for us to play together,” Haley Nishimoto said. “We have a trust and relationship with each other. Bay Oaks is like a sisterhood. And since we have a target on our back, it is good because teams keep us on our toes.”
In 2010, the Rockridge Soccer Club and the Bay Oaks Soccer Club combined to form the EBUSC in order to reach more kids in Oakland.
Glenn Van Stratum, the director of coaching at the East Bay United Soccer Club, said the Bay Oaks Botafogo 96’ squad is one of the most highly respected national level teams in the country and produces some of the best local talent to come out of Oakland, year in and year out.
“All of them are dedicated, disciplined and have the ability to play in college,” he said. “They are a very diverse and good soccer team. They are well coached by Jon and represent Oakland well.”
Stephanie’s father, Mario Zuniga, is an assistant coach on the team and coached the group before Coach Nishimoto joined the club. The name “Botafogo” was chosen by Zuniga’s dad, nine years ago.
Presently, the four girls still work on perfecting and use many of the same fundamentals that they learned from Coach Mario.
“Zuniga’s dad got us in to the style of play that we are in today,” Natsues said. “We focus on controlling possession and finding the best ways to get each other involved.”
Players describe Nishimoto as a role model who uses humor to give motivational speeches. For his part, Nishimoto said his players have been scouted and recruited heavily, and demonstrate the grit and grace necessary to have a long and successful career in soccer.
“I don’t think pressure affects these players. They have played in so many big games and big moments,” he said. “So as long as they manage their health, fitness, and give their best effort, then they should be fine.”