What do you do when you’re overwhelmed with offensive talent?
You take your best midfielder – a kid who received serious consideration in the Valley Oak League Most Valuable Player vote – and turn him into a defender.
Oh … wait.
Some might think Justin Coenenberg has gone mad, tinkering with the area’s top offense in 2012.
Rest assured, the Manteca boys soccer coach with the ZZ Top beard just looks crazy.
Coenenberg has said the secret to success is not in the system a team runs, but its players. With that in mind, the Buffaloes hope their versatility and abundance of talent will yield another Valley Oak League championship.
Midfielder Manuel Nuno will likely start the season along the backline, joining forces with Javier Rodriguez and goalie Abdiel Chaquito to give the Buffaloes some much-needed stability and explosiveness in the defensive third.
Nuno scored 15 goals and had five assists in 2012, earning all-VOL first-team honors and the team’s Midfielder of the Year award.
Now his focus changes. Instead of creating the attack, Nuno will look to snuff it out.
“I can put him anywhere,” Coenenberg said. “Defensively, he’s so quick and explosive. He can be that security blanket in the back.”
Manteca’s defense ranked fourth in the Valley Oak League in goals against last fall and was led by all-VOL first-team selection Cesar Reyes.
He’s gone, lost to graduation. So, too, is junior Carlos Belmonte, who Coenenberg has moved into the midfield.
That left gaping holes in the back – and a series of difficult decisions for Coenenberg.
“Defensively, with us moving Carlos up, we only have one defender with experience back there. I didn’t have many defenders coming from JV that were ready,” Coenenberg said. “So I had to take some offensive players and transition them back to playing defense.
“There’s a bit of a change, especially in mindset. The good thing about this is that once these guys make the transition, we’ll be more skilled in the back. I’m excited about that.”
Senior Brandon Landwher will also make the switch from midfielder to defender, filling the role of outside ’backer. Newcomer Sal Arias rounds out the overhaul.
Coenenberg has been pleased the response shown by Nuno and Landwher.
“It shows they’re not looking at individual goals and glory,” the seventh-year coach said, “but looking out for the good of the team. In a team sport like soccer that’s what it’s about … that’s what is important.”
The Buffaloes have all the components to make a run at their second straight VOL crown and third in six seasons.
Ramon Rodriguez and Marcus Montano will anchor the offense. Rodriguez has emerged as a team leader in the summer and fall camps, while Montano was the team’s leading producer last fall. The all-league striker tallied 22 goals and 11 assists, including five hat tricks.
In all, 14 players return from a team that lost just three times in 25 games and reeled off 13 consecutive wins to start the season.
Manteca clinched a share of the VOL title with a 3-2 victory over East Union on Oct. 25.
“What we’ve talked a lot about actually was that feeling we had that night we won a share of the title. We’ve reminisced about how that felt,” Coenenberg said. “We keep referencing that night. We want to experience that again this year.”
The Buffaloes reached the semifinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III tournament, but were eliminated by Central Valley.
The bar hasn’t budged.
“We lost six seniors and three of them (Reyes, Nacho Valdovinos and Ricardo Marin) were impact players. Those are pretty big shoes to fill,” Coenenberg said, “but we have some caliber players and they’re a year older. We have some talent coming back.”
To contact James Burns, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.