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A longtime Napa United Soccer Club coach, Miguel Ayala still remembers when he first saw Irais Hernandez play.

“She was 9 or 10 and I was like ‘Who is this little, really quiet girl that keeps scoring?’ She would score and just turn around and walk back. She stood out to me with her act-like-you’ve-done-it-before attitude.”

Five years later, having coached her in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades, Ayala decided to bring her up to the Vintage High varsity team during his first year at the helm.

“It was a preseason game and she was shell-shocked,” he said. “She got knocked down by an 18-year-old girl going for a 50-50 ball and it didn’t feel the same for her. But it was OK. She got a taste of it, she got stronger her sophomore year, she was really strong this year, and I’m expecting her to be even stronger next year.”

After scoring 12 goals for the junior varsity as a freshman, Hernandez managed only six goals in her first varsity season last winter – for a team that won only two games all season. But her importance to the Crushers’ success was perhaps evident this season when she scored nearly three times as many goals – 17 – and Vintage won three times as many games – six. For leading the county in scoring while respecting the game and leading her team by example, Hernandez becomes the first Napa County Girls Soccer Player of the Year to hail from Vintage in five years.

She said having a unique first name, pronounced “EE-rye-EES” with a slightly rolled “r,” doesn’t really make her feel she has to be unique.

“I don’t really pay attention to that,” she said. “I think my grandma saw it in the Bible and my mom liked it.”

She likes being part of a team and putting credit where it’s due.

“My teammates would depend on me to score, but I wouldn’t say it was always just me,” she said. “They helped me a lot, especially the other strikers up there with me and my midfielders, always starting plays, assisting me. A lot of my midfielders scored goals, too. My team was able to connect well.

“I think the difference this year was that all the players who were on varsity, I’ve known them for so long and so we know how each other plays.”

Hernandez said the two header goals she scored this season were her first as a high school player – which might be surprising since she was a center back when she was that 9-year-old newcomer to the game.

“I played defense maybe two or three years and then I got moved to midfield and played a whole year there,” she recalled. “Then I joined Miguel’s Napa United team when I was 14 and I started playing striker, and I’ve been there ever since.

“I was so used to taking the ball away from other players instead of trying to score. So it took me maybe a whole season to get used to actually passing the ball to midfield and try to score from that.”

After her offensive struggles as a sophomore, Hernandez began playing club last summer for Sonoma County-based North Coast FC. Ayala said it’s no fluke that she tripled her scoring for Vintage after that.

“You better believe it paid off. When you play with better competition, you tend to step up your game,” he said.

Hernandez was teammates with many players whose high school teams would make up the Vine Valley Athletic League’s top three – champion Petaluma, runner-up Casa Grande, and Sonoma Valley.

“We used her for scouting for our games – where their players are going to be at, what are they are looking like for next season,” Ayala said. “She’s my eyes and ears out there.”

Said Hernandez, “I knew who they were so I’d tell my team ‘She plays like this’ and ‘She plays like that,’ so it helped.”

But it worked both ways.

“A lot of my club teammates who played for Petaluma and Casa Grande were defenders, so they knew how I played,” she said. “I had to somehow get around them every game.”

Hernandez is now playing striker and wing on a North Coast under-17 team, and looks forward to getting looks from colleges at a showcase in San Diego this summer.

“I went to one in November in Las Vegas and a coach from UC Merced talked to me,” she said. “When I first wanted to join North Coast FC and went to try out, all the players were talented and fast and super good. When I made the team, I had to work harder so I could get up their level. It was nice to (get out of Napa and) see how others play and how you can connect with them.”

Despite leading the league in scoring and tying for the 10th-most goals in the North Coast Section, the 5-foot-5 Hernandez probably could have scored far more.

“Sometimes I have scoring opportunities and I just pass it. It’s not that I don’t want to shoot it, I just like creating plays more,” she said. “They say not every goal has to be pretty, but I like to score pretty goals, from set plays – and I’m probably the shortest striker around.”

Ayala wouldn’t mind seeing Hernandez triple her scoring total once again.

“If anything, I’m expecting her to take even more shots next season, and score more goals,” the coach said. “We’re very unselfish at times, almost to a fault, and I’m going to ask Irais and the other people up top, Neilani (Newberry) and Amy (Alfaro) to shoot more. I’ll tell them, ‘The moment you get it, you shoot it.’ We’ll take any kind of goal – ugly, pretty, in the middle, anything. It’ll be a big year for her, I hope, and I hope to see her take more of a leadership role.”

She did during the Crushers’ second game against Petaluma on Jan. 25. The Trojans had shut out eight of their first 13 opponents, giving up just six goals, when the Crushers came to town. With her team down 2-0 at halftime, Hernandez headed in a pretty goal to put Vintage on the brink of spoiling Petaluma’s perfect season before succumbing 2-1. The Trojans would stay undefeated until the section semifinals, when a home loss to Campolindo decided by a penalty kick shootout ended their season.

“That was probably one of our best games,” Hernandez said. “Even though we lost, we were pretty happy we were able to play good. We knew that they were in first place, so our mentality was different. We knew we had to play hard to move up in the league.”

With a 3.7 GPA and another year to shoot for a 4.0, Hernandez already know she wants to major in physical therapy in college and have a career helping athletes.

She hasn’t had to sit out with an injury yet herself – just that bruised ego during her varsity debut as a freshman. One thing she seemed to learn is that she didn’t mind contact, as long as the sound was a smack and not a crack.

“Her collisions sometimes scare the hell out of me,” Ayala said. “I’m just like ‘Wow. That’s like a grown-person tackle,’ and she just rolls it out and gets up and I’m like ‘Hey, you all right?’ and she’s like ‘Yeah.’

“You want to go in 100 percent so you don’t get hurt, so she leads by example. The other girls see that and they’re like, ‘If Irais can do it, I can do it.’ They can gravitate to that. She wants to be out there at all times, and you’re always looking for that as a coach.”

Asked if she’d like to play multiple sports as a senior, Hernandez said she’d like to try tennis in the fall.

“I’m interested in it because you have to have a lot of energy to hit the ball and move up and down the court,” she said.

“And I’m all for it,” Ayala chimed in, “any kind of physical activity, instead of them sitting on their rear ends and not doing anything. I’d rather that they play something.”

While Griselda and Jesus Hernandez watch son Sergio begin his soccer career at Vintage as a freshman this fall, their daughter will be looking to end hers on a high note.

“We’ll have a lot of seniors,” she said. “Except for maybe one player, we’ve all stayed together since our freshman year, so I’m really excited. I think we’ll have a good season.”

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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.