By John Philip Wyllie
There was great confidence and optimism at the start of this season for the Otay Ranch Mustangs Girl’s Soccer Team. Coach Ron Pietila expected star midfielder Veronica Valderrama to lead the young Mustangs to the top of the South Bay table. Then Valderrama went down with a hyper-extended knee. She was quickly joined on the sidelines by several other key players. Still others were disqualified for failing to maintain the CIF required 2.0 G.P.A.
Before long, Pietila’s once formidable lineup had more holes in it than a wedge of Swiss cheese. But then a funny thing happened. The younger, less experienced fill-ins started playing like their sidelined teammates. As a result, the Mustangs now sit at 10-6-5 and trail only the Hilltop Lancers in league competition. If they can continue winning in the waning weeks of the regular season, the Mustangs could soon find themselves competing in their first CIF San Diego Section Tournament. Pietila gives much of the credit to Valderrama’s center midfield replacement, Sarai Martinez.(pictured)
“When she first came out for the team last year (as a freshman) we didn’t think there was much hope for Sarai, but she has picked it up in the middle for “Vero” Valderrama and done a wonderful job. She has good vision, has the ball right at her foot and passes extremely well. Sarai has been our savior in the midfield,” Pietila said.
While her technical skills as a midfielder are considerable, that is not all that Martinez brings to the field. Her warm, outgoing personality tends to unite her teammates and her ability to speak both Spanish and English bridges the gap on what is a very multicultural team. She has also at times been a clutch player for the Mustangs.
“She knocked in the winning goal when we beat Castle Park here a couple of weeks ago. Sarai calmly beat a couple of defenders, received the ball back and slotted it into the corner for the game winner,” Pietila recalled.
Growing up in Tijuana, Martinez never played organized soccer, but she often competed in impromptu pickup games in her community. When she arrived on the Mustangs South Bay campus last year, she had considerable skill, but was more like a diamond in the rough. Martinez has proved a quick study while learning the nuances of tactical, organized soccer. She credits Pietila for her development into a solid center midfielder.
“He has really helped me improve my collection of the ball,” Martinez said. “And when he makes corrections he doesn’t do it in a mean way. When coaches yell at me it just makes me nervous and I continue making mistakes. He doesn’t do that. He is a very good coach. He does whatever he can to help us improve.”
With Valderrama now returning to form, Pietila has at times been using both girls simultaneously in the center of the midfield. With the playoffs looming on the horizon Valderrma’s return couldn’t occur at a better time. If these two talented midfielders can quickly learn to work together the Mustangs may yet fulfill their early season expectations.