Alex Hernandez slowed to a jog and eventually a brisk walk while running sprints with his Manteca High soccer teammates on Thursday.
His coach didn’t want to chance it and allowed Hernandez to sit this one out.
Justin Coenenberg and the Buffaloes had missed one of their top players for long enough.
Still working his way back from two separate injuries to the same knee, the senior sparkplug plans on sticking it out with the team for the duration of his final season.
“It feels great, especially coming off the torn ACL and meniscus,” Hernandez said. “I haven’t been playing with this team since my freshman year and I was kind of bummed out about it, but now I’m (regaining) my form and I’m excited for this year.”
Hernandez got tangled up with a teammate during a 3-on-3 drill Thursday and came up limping. Nothing serious, it turns out. Doesn’t hurt to make sure.
“I think anytime someone goes through something like he did there’s a little mental block to get past,” Coenenberg said. “But he seems quick and has got that burst back.”
Manteca did fine without him the past two seasons. In 2012 the Buffs captured an outright claim of the Valley Oak League title and reached the semifinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III playoffs. Last year they finished 17-4-4 and were runners-up of a loaded VOL table before their second-round exit in the section playoffs.
“They gave me a (VOL title) patch, but I want to feel like I deserved my own patch instead of just being there watching them,” Hernandez said.
His partner in crime is glad to have him back. Fourth-year varsity standout Marcus Montano was the area’s top scorer (22 goals, 11 assists) in 2013 and named the Manteca Bulletin’s All-Area Striker of the Year. As freshmen, Montano and Hernandez was a formidable combo that helped the Buffaloes place third in the VOL.
Hernandez scored four goals and dished out 13 assists in his only season with Manteca. His availability for his sophomore year was in question when he made the San Jose Earthquakes Academy under-16 squad. But before he signed a contract, he tore an ACL that kept him sidelined for a year.
Prior to his junior year Hernandez again made the Earthquakes roster and signed, but he tore his meniscus on the same knee while training with the Manteca team.
“It feels a lot better having him back,” Montano said. “Our freshman year I knew I could depend on him because we basically grew up playing together.
“We had to think of different ways to get around it. We had a couple players really step up and we just started clicking.”
Coenenberg can’t help but think, “What if?” Just how successful could Manteca have been over the past two seasons with the help of its crafty lefty winger?
“I do think about that,” Coenenberg said. “He led the league in assists as a freshman. Just an incredible playmaker. What he’s great at is setting his teammates up. For as talented as he is he’s extremely unselfish. It definitely would have been nice to have him the last couple of years.
“Just his presence and attitude were missed as well. He’s a natural leader.”
Manteca won’t be short on capable goal scorers this year. Also back are junior center midfielder Kevin Rodriguez (13 goals, eight assists) and senior forward Jason Maravilla (14 goals, five assists). Rodriguez was an All-VOL first-team selection as a sophomore, while Maravilla made the second team. There is also a promising sophomore Aron Navarrette.
Another returner of note is All-VOL second-team defender Carlos Belmonte, who Coenenberg would like to move up to the midfield and make use of his strong and accurate leg.
Defense may have been the strength of the team last season with All-VOL first-team fullback Ramon Rodriguez and league MVP Abdiel Chiquito solidifying the back line. The diminutive Chiquito was a large presence as Manteca’s goalkeeper. Replacing him won’t be easy.
Enter Tydus Verhoeven, a 6-foot-6 sophomore and starting guard on the school’s varsity basketball team last winter. Coeneberg took a flier on volleyball standout Alyssa Burch during the girls season and she helped the Buffaloes advance to the SJS Division III title match.
Senior Jose Zamarripa, who took his junior year off but previously played for the frosh-soph team, is the early favorite for the starting spot at goal. Two others are also in contention, so Conenberg has options.
“I didn’t know if we were going to have a goalie come out this year,” Coenenberg said. “I talked with (Verhoeven) last spring and he was up for the challenge. Tydys definitely has all the tools and a strong work ethic but it may take some time. We may keep him down on the JV team to let him progress but we’ll see where it plays out. Our other guys have looked really good.”
Manteca will once again play through a busy pre-league schedule starting with Franklin at home on Aug. 30. The team hosts its annual Buffalo Cup tournament on Sept. 5-6 and kicks off the VOL season at Oakdale, the reigning champ, on Sept. 15.
The Buffaloes expect to remain in contention in the VOL and beyond.
“I’d say we have a pretty good shot,” Montano said. “We have some young players here, so we have to keep working on the team chemistry and getting better. We should be good by the time the season comes.”