The Athenian High School, a small private school located at the base of Mt. Diablo in Danville, is a scenic school with a well-deserved academic reputation.
But the Owls also have another distinction – two-time defending North Coast Section Fall Division II boys’ soccer champions. The latest NCS title came with a 1-0 win over Calistoga on Nov. 13.
How the team got to the point of being a powerhouse with an enrollment of just 364 students (an additional 171 students make up the middle school) is interesting and has a philosophy unseen at most schools when it comes to athletics.
The school covers 75 acres and a student body mainly comprised of students that live within 30 minutes of the school. But there are also 60 students that live on campus from all over the world.
The Bay Area Conference East members are coached by long time Danville area coach Matt Zahner. Zahner guided the girls’ program at San Ramon Valley High School, before moving over and coaching the Monte Vista boys for nine years starting in 2005.
He started at Athenian in 2002 leaving his school year looking like this: Fall – Athenian boys, Winter – Monte Vista boys, Spring – Athenian girls.
Throw in his profession of working in the stock market trading industry and you can see how the average day shook out. Add the fundraising responsibilities coaching at a public school brings and Zahner knew something needed to change.
It was 11 years ago when Zahner decided to make a big change. He left the financial industry and took a job teaching middle school history and economics at Athenian.
He also left Monte Vista and opted to coach at Athenian only.
“I went from having to worry about raising money at Monte Vista to being at a private school where it is ‘what do you need and we will get it for you’,” said Zahner.
The change from the stock market to teaching would seem like much less stressful environment, but that was not initially the case.
“My first years’ teaching was some of the most stressful,” explained Zahner. “You want to be the best teacher possible and give the kids everything they deserve.”
Now that he’s settled into the teaching ranks, Zahner has been building the Owls soccer program into a shining beacon.
“I was talking with Darek (Cliff, the Athenian AD) and it’s incredible,” said Zahner. “(Soccer) has become kind of the signature sport.”
And it has been done with a different approach.
At Athenian, athletics is considered an extension of the classroom, just being outside.
There are no cuts on any of the teams and the students are encouraged to participate. This recent season Zahner had 50 players out of the roughly 180 boys at the school.
The approach to coaching at Athenian is vastly different than in the East Bay Athletic League.
“One of the main challenges is that the kids are involved in other activities at the same time as the season,” said Zahner. “Whether they are involved in the Model U.N. or drama, or something else – there are so many things involved in being an Athenian student.”
The school also has an Athenian Wilderness Experience (AWE) that is 21-days in either Death Valley or the Sierra Nevada depending on the time of year. It is a graduation requirement and usually takes place during the students junior year. It includes a three-day/night solo experience where the students are isolated in a fixed location that is monitored by teachers on the trip with at least two check-ins a day.
Zahner went on an abbreviated AWE that is offered to teachers and raved about the experience.
It’s the type of curriculum that sets Athenian apart from other schools, but also something that can take players away from their respective sports.
“I had to wrap my head around that you won’t always have everyone,” said Zahner.
Which wasn’t easy initially.
“I had to adjust and coach to the model of the school,” explained Zahner. “I had to stay with the values and the mindset of the school. I was hesitant at first, but it has made me a better coach. I had to set my competitive nature aside and dovetail to the school.”
The school believes the most important thing is just being out there. The mindset is to develop every single player on the roster, not just as an athlete, but as a person.
But don’t let the approach lead you to believe the team doesn’t want to be successful.
“It is a varsity sport – we strive to win and there is no apology for that,” said Zahner.
This season was the perfect example of the lessons the team can learn from Zahner and his staff.
After winning NCS is 2019, Athenian, like all other schools saw their 2020 season shortened and moved to the spring because of the COVID pandemic.
That led to this fall season where Zahner had only three returning players. The team started with positive results, but Zahner and his staff knew the team was “not as good as we think we are,” a feeling that came to life with an early season loss to rival College Prep.
“That was a turning point,” said Zahner. “At that point the kids took ownership – they took it upon themselves. They were intense about being good.”
Perhaps too intense.
“These guys as a team put a lot of pressure on themselves,” said Zahner. “That led to the other turning point – they needed to realize it’s just a game and to have fun on the field.”
After the early loss, the Owls only dropped one more game on the way to the No. 2 seed in the D-II tournament.
The team opened the postseason with a 6-0 win over Summit K2 from El Cerrito in a game that Zahner said was much tougher than the final score indicated.
That was followed by a 5-0 win over Jewish Community of San Francisco, which sent the team to the semifinals and a date with the No. 3 seeded International, also of San Francisco.
Athenian earned a spot in the finals with a tough 2-0 win.
“That was a great match,” said Zahner.
The Owls expected to face top-seeded Sonoma Academy in the finals, but the team was upset by Calistoga, giving Athenian the right to host the championship game.
“It was nice to host,” said Zahner. “We have a great fan base that comes to the games.”
And it showed.
After the 1-0 win off a goal from Colin O’Bryne, the students rushed the field.
The way the students have embraced the way Athenian athletics are played is hopefully building an image for the school.
“I am hoping to get the school to present themselves as a place you can play – a place where you can pick up a new sport and play,” said Zahner.