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Soccer: Napa’s Vargas signs with Combine Academy
Soccer

Soccer: Napa’s Vargas signs with Combine Academy

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Erik Vargas was expecting to play only soccer for Napa High once again, until football head coach Richie Wessman asked soccer head coach Rafael Ayala if he had anyone who could try out for place-kicker.

Vargas was a year-round soccer player, hoping to get noticed by college programs by competing for Napa Soccer Academy in tournaments and showcases between high school seasons.

Why would he want to complicate his life by playing a new sport all of a sudden – the most attended high school sport, in a role that – unlike soccer – requires him to stand around most of the night until an extra point or field goal attempt suddenly puts him in a high-pressure situation, the whole team counting on him to win a game or keep it close?

Well, because the coaches felt he could do it. He did, making 39 of 41 extra points to help the football team finish second in the Vine Valley Athletic League after it had finished 0-10 the year before.

“Soccer has always been my first love, but I saw football as a new challenge,” Vargas recalled. “It all came about when I was recommended by Rafa Ayala because of my power and accuracy. The reason I worked so hard is my mindset. If Coach Wessman was trusting me with this opportunity, I didn’t want to let him down. My father has always put the mindset in me that if I’m going to do something, then I need to invest myself 100% into it. He made it clear to me that if I was being brought in as a specialist, then I needed to give it my all every time I kicked the ball.

“Football wasn’t a distraction (for soccer) because my club and high school seasons were on opposite sides of the calendar. I kept training with my club team, but we didn’t have any games.”

Just a week after the football season ended with a first-round playoff loss to eventual state champion Clayton Valley Charter, Vargas made the big step in soccer he had been hoping for – impressing coaches from Combine Rush Post Graduate Soccer Academy of North Carolina at a soccer showcase.

Vargas recently signed with the academy in the Charlotte suburb of Lincolnton. His plan is to play for Combine this coming school year before moving on to a pro or college team in England.

“Combine Academy of Charlotte is an affordable option for aspiring student-athletes … to get the exposure needed to advance their game to the collegiate/pro level,” according to the academy’s website, combineacademy.com. “Combine Academy competes on a national level against some of the top institutions and student-athletes in the world. Its main goal is to enhance each student-athlete’s ability to be placed into a college with an athletic and/or academic scholarship.

“More than 30% of collegiate students drop out in their first year of college as well as 57% of students not finishing their college degree after six years. At Combine Academy, we provide students with an extra year of experience before committing to a college, which decreases the percentage of dropouts and prolonged college years for our athletes when they enter the independent collegiate lifestyle.”

It’s funny how this opportunity came about right after he had mastered a completely different sport. Missing only 2 of 41 extra points probably had a few college football coaches looking at Vargas, but he wasn’t looking back.

“Kicking in college was never on my radar,” he said. “I honestly never thought I would have gotten any offers to kick in college. To have a caliber of coach like Coach Wessman tell me that I could kick in college was a humbling experience, but I love soccer and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I will always be grateful to (football assistant coaches Matt) Lawson and (Tom) Petithomme for their guidance and helping me in my accomplishments at Napa High and the team.

After helping turn around the football program, Vargas helped the Grizzlies’ soccer team finish second in the Vine Valley Athletic League for the second year in a row, going 9-3 in league and 13-8-1 overall.

“I don’t necessary think playing football made me tougher. I’ve always changed my personality on the field verses off of it, so it’s like an on-off switch. My mindset is to put in the work and prove myself. That’s how I give my team the best chance of winning. I’m the player that wants the coach to put the team on my back.”

He had fun playing soccer for his high school team, especially in Big Games against crosstown rival Vintage. But he never got to show what he could do in those games as much as he could in the showcases.

“Playing high school soccer at Napa High gives you very little to no exposure at all,” he said. “The coaches at the showcases mentioned that they were impressed with my leadership, and technical abilities, but most of all my “excellent range of passing, and that I worked both sides of the ball.’”

His father, St. Helena High graduate Ed Vargas, also kicked for the football team while playing soccer – and went on to play soccer professionally. Ed, whose daughter Cynthia Vargas was a 2016-17 Napa County Girls Soccer Co-Player of the Year, has coached youth soccer in the area for many years and couldn’t be happier for his son.

Combine Academy is “looking to push him out to wings or the 8, the attacking mid spot … because of his speed off the ball and his accuracy. If used correctly, Erik is tough to stop, and that’s putting on my coach’s hat, not my dad one.

“He was actually their No. 4 recruiting target.”

Vargas, who carried a 3.6 GPA at Napa High, said he plans to earn a doctorate or master’s degree in kinesiology – regardless whether the pro route works out or not.

“The original plan was for me to head to Europe after graduation, and study and play abroad,” he explained. “But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, plans changed. Coach Ryan Hodgson (who is partnered with Combine Academy) identified me at the showcase and handpicked the Combine Academy because of the training methods they employ.

“We’ll be playing against Major League Soccer academies and universities, primarily on the East Coast. The idea is to spend a year at the Combine Academy and showcase myself here in the U.S., with hopes of getting a pro contract offer. If that doesn’t happen, the plan is to transfer to the University of Royal Hampton in London, England. I would also be signing with Crystal Palace FC of the English Premier League and enter their club as a development player.”

Bob Reasso, the academy’s executive director and head coach, said last week he is happy to bring in Vargas.

“We are delighted that Erik is joining us at the Combine Rush Soccer Academy,” he said. “Erik is a classic box to box midfielder. He has an excellent range of passing, and works hard on both sides of the ball. He is an outstanding young man, with a big future in front of him.”

According to the Combine website, Seasso spent most of his 30-plus-year hall of fame career as the head coach at Division I Rutgers University. In 2013, he was appointed head coach of Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, N.C. The Falcons, who had won only one game the year before Reasso’s arrival, went from the bottom of the conference to champions in three years by winning the NCAA Division II national title in 2015.

Reasso was a two-time national coach of the year and guided teams to 16 NCAA tournament appearances, four Final Four appearances and two national championship appearances, compiling an all-time record of 436-209-79. He has coached 60 players that have gone on to play professionally – 24 for MLS clubs – and 24 NCAA All-Americans. They include Peter Vermes, the current manager at Sporting KC, and Alexi Lalas, a former U.S. national men’s team player and current Fox sports analyst.

Before Vargas headed East to train under the well-decorated Reasso, he wanted to thank those in the Napa Valley who have made his next step possible.

“I’ve been very lucky to have been trained by some of the best coaches in this valley, from my start with the Indians at Napa Valley FC, to Napa United and, finally, NSA,” he said. “I will always be grateful to my father for coaching me and teaching me that winning is fun, for (NSA Director of Coaching) Gavin Taylor for teaching me that ‘Preparation + Opportunity = Success,’ and for (NSA) Coach Eric Branagan-Franco, who never gave up on me and believed in my talents. He was the coach who really pushed me to learn to play on both sides of the ball.

“Finally a special thank you goes to Arik Housley at Napa United/1839 FC, because he really pushed to get our generation of players to play on one team. I truly believe that team opened doors for players in this community and gave Napa recognition and credibility.

“When we were little guys, he and my father were (coaching) opposite clubs. We had a solid team at Napa Valley FC with my brother, Eli Garcia, and (LA Galaxy developmental player) Lalo Blancas and (two-time county Player of the Year) Oscar Loyola to name a few. Napa United had players like Carlos Ayala, Eddie Gonzalez and Gerardo Perez.

“We had two good teams in Napa. Arik and my father talked about getting us all together, but there were trust issues. Arik broke down those trust issues and he and my father became really good friends. They both were the architects to one of the best teams put together in Napa. Honestly, playing on that team at Napa United was the most fun I had in my entire youth soccer career. Mr. Housley believed we had some solid serious talent in the 2001-2002 generation and he pushed along with my father to get us together. He is genuine and very trustworthy.”

Erik’s dad couldn’t be more grateful.

“He was originally heading to England to attend John Fox University and he had offers from (pro clubs) Royal Hampton and Everton,” Ed Vargas said. “When COVID happened, the recruiter had nowhere to have them train, so he worked out to send Erik (to Combine Academy) to train for nine months while doing college courses to stay ahead.

“The training regime is intense, simulating a professional club. This is what he worked for and he’s always wanted to leave out of state to do it. Seems like he got his wish.”

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Sports Reporter

Andy Wilcox is a sportswriter-photographer for the Napa Valley Register. He's had similar roles in Walnut Creek, Grass Valley, Auburn, Tracy and Patterson. He grew up in Ohio. His wife, Laura, is a pastry chef. He also enjoys playing guitar and piano.

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