Manny Luna making all the stops

Balers junior Manny Luna has provided strong play at goalkeeper. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The San Benito High boys soccer team won a Central Coast Section playoff game for the first time in program history last season. The Haybalers are showing that was no fluke, as they have looked downright impressive in posting a record of 6-1-6 overall and 3-0-2 in league play.

San Benito opens the second half of league play with a match against Monterey on Thursday. The Balers and Monterey finished in a 1-1 draw in the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 2. Balers goalkeeper Manny Luna pointed to the team’s improved chemistry as being the decisive factor.

“We have a lot of talent on the team again, but this year we’re more united,” he said. “We’re committed to each other on and off the field. We’re good teammates, but we’re better friends.”

Luna, a 5-foot-8, 153-pound junior, has gained confidence with each match. He came on particularly strong in the championship match of the top division of the Homestead Tournament, which San Benito won for the first time in school history. The Balers defeated league rival Alvarez for the championship, with the result coming down to a penalty kick shootout.

Luna played a pivotal role, as he stopped two shots to lead the Balers to a victory in the penalty kick session. Luna was downright bold and even a bit audacious during the shootout, talking trash to the first three Alvarez players who took shots. Before the penalty kicks, Luna was having a conversation with a former goalkeeper in the crowd when he received this piece of advice.

“I was told to pressure the shooters,” Luna said. “Before the players got to their spot to kick, I would grab the ball, bounce it a bit and tell them, ‘You’ve already missed, so there’s no point in you shooting. I know exactly where you’re going to go.’ Then I put the ball in their chest, so they backed up a little and seemed intimidated.”

Say what you will about Luna’s tactics, but it worked. Two of Alvarez’s first three kickers were unsuccessful, paving the way for the Balers to prevail. Luna wouldn’t have been nearly so bold last year, when he served as the backup goalkeeper. However, Balers coach Marco Orozco has helped instill confidence in Luna.

“I guess coach saw something in me this season, and I didn’t want to let him down,” Luna said. “Coach Marco told me that even though I was the backup last year, this was going to be my season to show what I could do. I didn’t want to disappoint him.”

Luna has done the opposite, playing solid in goal and making the position a strength for San Benito, which competes in arguably the top boys soccer league in the section. Luna has had no problem being vocal on the field. Goalkeepers have to bark out instructions to their defenders when the opposing team has a set piece, free kick or is on the attack deep in the San Benito end of the field.

“I know when I scream at the players, they know I’m just trying to do what is best for the team,” he said. “I just want to help out so we can all succeed as one. When I have the chance, I’ll be aggressive as possible. I can come out and won’t hesitate to straight up ram up to the player and ball if I have to.”

Luna underwent surgery for a torn left meniscus last June. It turned out to be a life-changing experience. Luna did rehab sessions three times a week for a total of 10 weeks. It was the people at the facility where Luna got treated—“The building right next to Hazel Hawkins,” he said—that made him want to have an attitude change.

“Before surgery, I didn’t get along with a lot of people,” he said. “But after surgery, I got to know a lot of the staff members, and they always put me in a happy mood even if I was mad or sad. As soon as I arrived at the center, I would have conversations with them about school, society and other subjects. It was a really nice experience. Going through it (surgery and rehab) helped me improve as a player and person. I’m feeling better than ever.”

Luna was 2 years old when he started kicking the ball around in his backyard. He was 8 when he first played goalkeeper for a small recreation league team in Mexico. Luna credits his grandfather, Humberto, for teaching him how to play soccer.

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