It wasn’t a matter of whether Oscar Loyola would repeat as Napa County Boys Soccer Player of the Year last winter, but whether the Vintage High senior would score more goals than the 21 he had as a junior – and he had 22.
This season, Vintage has at least two Player of the Year candidates in sophomore Landon Leal Ruiz and junior Emmanual Duran. Although the former’s team-high 11 goals and the latter’s 10 goals only add up to what Loyola would have at this point in the season, most coaches know it’s better to have two main weapons than one.
For Vintage, which takes 13-3 overall and 8-1 Vine Valley Athletic League records into Thursday night’s Big Game II against crosstown rival Napa (12-6-1, 8-2 VVAL) at Memorial Stadium, actually has a third big weapon.
Junior Gerardo Perez comes between the other two in points with his 8 goals and team-high 9 assists. Leal Ruiz, with 5 assists, leads the Crushers with 27 points, followed by Perez with 25 and Duran, who has 2 assists, with 22.
Leal Ruiz, a center midfielder, and Duran, a forward, each started playing when he was 6. The former grew up playing with brother Julio Leal Ruiz, a center mid who starred for then-Monticello Empire League opponent Armijo before transferring to Vintage for his senior year.
This year’s scoring leaders played for rival Napa clubs, Leal Ruiz for Napa Soccer Academy and Duran for Napa United 1839 Academy.
Leal Ruiz was playing in national tournaments across the country with the NSA long before he got to high school, so he hit the ground running coming up from the junior varsity this season.
“It’s just a little bit more physical,” the diminutive Leal Ruiz said of varsity soccer. “Besides that, I can handle it. Playing club at a high level helped me. It’s probably a little more competitive in club than here.”
But he said he enjoys playing in front of the bigger high school soccer crowds. His composure showed in last month’s Big Game, when he scored the winning goal in a 2-1 win over the Grizzlies. Duran had scored in the first half before Napa tied early in the second half.
“It’s more exciting,” Leal Ruiz said of high school soccer. “Also, the fans can help us a lot in a game, really cheer us on and give us momentum when we score or make a good play. My favorite game so far was the first Big Game, with all the emotions from the get-go, all the fans, playing our rival school. The first one to settle in can do better in the end. I try to be a leader and do my own thing. If I can raise others, too, that’s my other option.”
Duran said most of the Crushers play club for 1839 or NSA, which are rivals of each other.
“High school is the same speed as club and you get to play with all these players you never played with before because they’re across town,” Duran said.
Speaking of emotions, the Crushers lost control of theirs at the end of a recent nonleague game at De La Salle, the program they lost to in last year’s North Coast Section Division I semifinals. The scuffle forced them to forfeit their ensuing game, a VVAL contest scheduled at third-place Sonoma Valley. It was their first league loss in two years.
“De La Salle was a game we were looking forward to and it got out of control,” Duran said. “It was pretty even in the first half and even in the second half, and things changed toward the end and we couldn’t control our emotions.”
Chimed in Leal Ruiz, “We’ll see them again. That was an eye opener and I think the whole team learned from it. We don’t want that to happen again. We take it way more serious now. We all have one goal – to win sections, so I think we’ve got to go towards that and take it way more seriously.”
With only four seniors, eight fewer than last year, it’s no surprise that three underclassmen lead the Crushers in scoring.
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“We’re not as experienced, but we all know how to play with each other,” Duran said.
Leal Ruiz got used to big crowds when he kicked for the Vintage junior varsity football team this fall. He said he didn’t miss any extra points or field goals for the Crushers, who finished 9-1 overall and 6-0 in the VVAL.
“One of our soccer teammates, Tate Salese, is the kicker for the varsity and he brought me into it,” he said. “It was a fun experience. I’ll try out for varsity next year and give Tate a little competition.”
Duran said he plays only soccer year-round, and never gets burned out on it.
“If I’m not playing soccer I just run for fun,” he said. “I just like scoring goals, and I think we’ve gotten more chemistry throughout the season. We’re getting better and we know how we play now, just connecting with easy passes and not making it too hard for ourselves.”
Duran said his favorite game so far was a nonleague road game in December against Ygnacio Valley in Concord because he earned a penalty kick that Leal Ruiz converted to tie the game in the final minutes.
“We’re pushing to get to the section final. Hopefully we’ll get there,” Duran said. “We feel better about it after the loss to De La Salle.
Vintage co-coach Alex Feliciano said Leal Ruiz hasn’t let his smaller stature hold him back, even at the more physical varsity level.
“He’s a little pit bull in there, a little snarling dog, and we love that,” the coach said. “He’s got a great engine. He works on both sides of the ball. He’s got that hunger and he’s feisty. What he lacks in size he makes up for in heart and passion.
“Sometimes we have to tell him to tone it back a little bit. A lot of times he was getting yellow cards because he’s involved in a lot of tackles and other things, but we love his attitude and we love his play. He’s got tremendous vision. When you play that center midfield role you’ve got to be able to ping those balls and hit those 30- or 40-yard balls on a dime and find those guys that are in the flanks and getting them behind their line.”
Duran was actually a goalkeeper in his first years of soccer, even when Feliciano was coaching him with Napa United.
“We had to put him in the field because he was a dangerous forward, and you didn’t want to waste his ability to finish,” Feliciano said. “Both of these boys play on really high-level academy teams and so they’re used to playing in big games against tough opponents and being physical.
“It’s definitely a good problem to have, having more than one guy that’s capable of scoring, or getting hot and going on a run and scoring some goals. When teams gameplan for us, they can’t just pinpoint one guy and double-team him or man-mark him. We have a lot of dangerous players, a lot of guys that can hurt you, scoring by committee and spreading the wealth. Everybody’s hungry and we want everybody to get a chance to eat.”
Co-coach Javier Cobarrubias had expected Perez to be leading the team in scoring by now, but the junior has more assists than goals.
“On top of that, Anthony (Enriquez) and (Justin) Sotelo are creating opportunities, feeding other guys for assists,” he said. “Between those three, four or five players up top, we can make something happen.”
Most forwards try to stand out with brightly colored cleats. Duran does so with a headband.
“It’s more of a fashion thing because his hair’s not long enough to get in his eyes,” Feliciano said. “Maybe it’s a superstition thing. He’s definitely a student of the game.
“Landon’s had to grow up fast when it comes to playing,” the coach said of Leal Ruiz, whose brother Julio played this fall for Cosumnes River College and is also on the Vacaville Elite National Premier Soccer League team. “He’s out there motivating Landon and kinda has him under his wing, and so that’s definitely matured him as well.”