Kevin Mendiola wheeled back with his right foot and took the ball off a bounce, sending it crashing into the back of the net.
Give the kid this: With his dyed-blonde bangs and effortless strikes, Mendiola has the style and swagger of a true No. 9.
Each of Thursday afternoon’s golazos was met with a round of cheers from his teammates, who have been impressed with the freshman’s scoring prowess in training camp.
Read that line again: “… in training camp.”
How the young striker performs in a varsity contest is the question du jour on the back-lot field at Sierra High.
Mendiola is the centerpiece of a young nucleus that also includes three sophomores. Together, they are the future of the Sierra soccer program. The cornerstones. The promise. The potential.
But more importantly, for coaches Joe Pires and Ronnie Green, they are the present, too.
The Timberwolves return only five players from a talented 2013 team that performed far below expectation.
Sierra finished fourth in the Valley Oak League at 6-4-4 behind Oakdale, Manteca and Weston Ranch, respectively, and missed the Sac-Joaquin Section postseason despite owning one of the area’s top 1-2 punches in Brian Ramos and Juan Acosta.
“That was the biggest disappointment,” Pires said. “Coming in as a new coach, they had their habits and they had their team. I didn’t want to mess with it too much. I thought they had enough talent to make the playoffs. So that was disappointing.
“This year, it’s my system.”
To say the Timberwolves have turned the page would be an understatement. They return only four starters and their top two scorers – Ramos and Acosta – are no longer uniform.
Ramos graduated in June. He was named to the Bulletin’s All-Area team after notching 22 goals and seven assists.
Acosta would have been a leading candidate for the Bulletin’s All-Area MVP award this fall had he remained eligible. The attacking midfielder had 12 goals and 11 assists as a junior, and his wizardry on the ball was unmatched in the Valley Oak League.
Wide-eyed and without a hint of sarcasm, Pires once described Acosta as the only player in the VOL who could dribble into a pack of players and come out the other end with the ball still stuck to his foot.
“He’s a player I wish I could have,” Pires added on Thursday. “He’s a star player, but I have some players coming in. I’ve got three or four guys that will fill that void that he left.”
Depth won’t be an issue for Pires, who has no plans to cut any of the 26 players in camp ahead of Friday’s season opener against Pitman at the Pitman Tournament.
Sierra will also face Arcata, Pacheco and Lincoln of Stockton during the two-day draw.
The large roster has given the coaching staff a chance to tinker with player combinations in a game-setting.
“They’re competing,” Pires said. “We’re moving players in and out of the ‘top team,’ so they know this is an open competition.”
There are a few certainties, though.
The Timberwolves’ attack will be rooted in the midfield, where holding midfielder Joel Vargas – a tall, steady presence on the ball – will be surrounded by a host of players itching to go on goal.
Seniors Cezar Martinez (eight goals, nine assists) and Henry Diaz (nine assists) will attack from the wings, while sophomore David Lopez will help anchor the middle.
Sophomore Eduardo Aguilar will also see time in the midfield.
The target will be Mendiola, whose combination of size and speed should create matchup problems.
“He’s that kid,” Pires said. “He’s got good size and speed and he can shoot with either foot, but he’s a natural lefty.
“He never stops moving. He’s not the kind of player to wait for the ball. He’s always moving around the field.”
The Timberwolves have their own worries in the defensive third.
Sophomore forward Eriq Kurys will move to sweeper to shore up a backline that returns just one starter – stopper Josh Lee. The battle at the goalie position is ongoing. There are three goalies in camp – Daniel Meza, Christian Montes and Luis Garcia.
“Our main work has been on defense,” Pires said, “and finding those right combinations.”
How they jell may foretell the Timberwolves’ chances this fall in an ever-competitive VOL.
“The expectation this year? Well, you always want to win a league title. That’s the main goal,” Pires said. “They’re young and inexperienced, but we have some athletes. If they do what the coaching staff tells them to do, I think we’ll compete for a playoff spot.”