Oscar Del Pino played on the Charlotte Catholic High School boys' soccer team as a senior, 15 years ago. This season, he is the head coach.
Del Pino is moving into familiar territory because he graduated from Catholic in 1993 and he has served as an assistant to Gary Hoilett for the past six seasons.
“It won't be a whole lot different for me,” Del Pino said.
He said Hoilett is scaling back after taking a more full-time coaching role with the soccer team at Wingate. “But it will be a huge challenge to make sure I keep the program at the same level of consistency that we have had in the past.”
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Del Pino inherits a program that is used to success. Since winning back-to-back state championships in 2003 and 2004, the Cougars have posted a staggering record of 86-11-10. Charlotte Catholic has won the Queen City conference title in all four seasons and has not lost a conference match since 2005. The Cougars also have made it to at least the state quarterfinals for five of the past six years.
“We've got a great tradition,” Del Pino said.
He also coaches several teams for the Mecklenburg-Union Football Club (formerly Matthews Soccer Club). “But all that doesn't mean much when we step onto the field this season. We've got to go out and prove it every game.”
The Cougars are well on their way to proving themselves again under Del Pino.
Catholic is 6-0 (as of Friday) with wins over Weddington, East Meck and Olympic. Catholic also is ranked No. 2 in the state and should be the No. 1 team in North Carolina after (No. 1) Lake Norman lost to Mooresville 2-0 earlier last week.
“We haven't seen the No. 1 spot since Lake Norman started winning all the games,” Del Pino said.
“It's not a bad thing to be No. 1, but at this point in the season it doesn't mean a whole lot. Right now, we have a lot of work to do.”
The Cougars have two good leaders to help keep them focused – senior co-captains Donnie Smith and Nate Badke, both four-year varsity players.
Smith, last year's leading scorer, will lead the offense from his central midfield position. Del Pino said he hadn't decided how he'll use Smith.
“He is such an experienced and talented player that we'll find a way to make a difference no matter where he is on the field,” Del Pino said.
Smith, who hasn't decided where he will go to college next year, has made himself an even better player as a part of the U.S. Soccer Academy U18 team. Smith got rave reviews after scoring five of his team's seven goals at the June showcase in Greensboro.
“Donnie has shown flashes of being great before,” South Charlotte Soccer U18 Coach Derrick Leeson said, as Smith played in front of over 100 college coaches. “But (in the June showcase) he really came to the forefront. He really opened a lot of people's eyes.”
Del Pino says he also expects junior Sutton Porter to be a big part of what he hopes is a balanced offense.
While Smith leads the offense, his teammate on both the high school and Academy teams, Badke, will anchor the Cougar defense. Badke, a central defender, has already signed to play soccer at UNC Charlotte next year.
Badke hopes to lead a defense that will help senior goalkeeper Pat George, a first-time starter, ease into his role. George has been strong so far as the Cougars have allowed only two goals in six games.
“(Donnie) and (Nate) are great leaders for this team,” Del Pino said. “They set the tone for our team and make sure everybody knows what to expect.”
While the Cougars appear to be on the road to another strong season, the big obstacle might be their schedule. Catholic plays Porter Ridge (No. 10) as well as archrival South Meck and No. 1 Lake Norman on the road.
“We aren't taking anything for granted this season,” Del Pino said. “First, we want to win our conference, and then we want to make the playoffs.”
Catholic, which has finished in the state's top 10 for the past seven seasons, is one of the favorites to be in contention for a state championship. But Del Pino says the past doesn't matter.
“This year is a completely different ball game,” Del Pino said. “We haven't proven anything yet. We'll just have to wait and see where we are in the end (of the season).”