Luna gives Balers an extra dimension

Balers goalkeeper Manny Luna has the ability to also make an impact as a midfielder. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Manny Luna defines versatility. The San Benito High goalkeeper was pressed into field duty in the team’s showdown against Watsonville on Tuesday—the score of the match was not available before the completion of this article—a direct result of Luna’s playmaking ability and the fact the Haybalers have suffered some key injuries in the midfield early in the season.

“He doesn’t like the idea (of playing midfield), but he will do it on occasion such as Tuesday because I want my best players and lineup out on the field against the best team,” Balers coach Greg Dolan said. “Manny is very composed on the ball, makes the right decision and is a leader on the field. He’s my best goalkeeper and he might be my best midfielder, too. His preference is in goal, but he’s so damn good on the outside, too.”

Luna said he and his teammates have a deep and profound respect for Dolan, which prompted Luna to accede to his coach’s wishes.

“When Greg asked me to make the switch, I said I’ll do it because I trust he knows what he’s doing,” Luna said. “But going into that game will be really tricky. Switching from goalkeeper to midfield for anyone would be a tough challenge, not only because you have to get in the game more because you’re pulling the strings as a midfielder, but from a fitness level. As a goalie, you don’t run much, but now I’ll be going up and down the field, which is a lot different.”

Before Luna made his mark as a goalkeeper two years ago, he played midfielder. However, after Luna underwent surgery in the summer before his junior year, he decided to play goalkeeper full time and only play out in the field in certain situations.

The Balers, who began the week at 5-1-3, have picked off right where they left off from last year’s historic season in which they won a Central Coast Section playoff game for the first time in program history. Luna credits the smooth transition to Dolan, who knows most of the players on the team since he’s also the coach of the Hollister Strikers, the local club program.

“Playing for three coaches in my four years here is a little difficult, but this coach is different because he’s like family to us,” Luna said. “Being able to play for him as the Hollister coach is what a lot of players wished for. We couldn’t be happier.”

Luna said the players love Dolan because of his generosity and the attention and care for which he shows his players on a constant basis. Not only does Dolan want the players to fulfill their potential on the field, he goes to great lengths to make sure they’re taking care of business off the field as well.

It’s more important for Dolan that the players excel in school, do the right things and stay out of trouble. To that end, Dolan literally opens up his home for the players so they can bond and have deep relationships.

“Last Saturday (Dec. 29) he invited all of us over to his house to watch a (Premier League) soccer game,” Luna said. “He made breakfast for everyone and after that we played soccer outside his house. Most of us have played for him the last four or five years, and he’s always been there for us. Being with him this long, we consider him as family.”

San Benito High plays in arguably the toughest boys soccer league in the CCS, the Pacific Coast League’s Gabilan Division. Even with perennial section heavyweights Watsonville, Alvarez and Alisal in the division, the Balers envision winning the league championship. If that comes to fruition, it would be the first A-league title in program history.

“We’re confident we can take league,” Luna said. “Even though we lost a lot of good players from last year’s team, we still have a lot of talent here.”

Luna had an impressive performance in a 1-0 loss to Monterey on Dec. 17, blocking a penalty shot and making several other spectacular saves. Luna actually didn’t start the match, as he said Dolan wanted to give him a rest day. However, unforeseen circumstances led to Luna being inserted into the game around the 15-minute mark. Luna feels his overall skill set has improved since last season.

“I feel like I’ve gotten smarter on the field,” he said. “I’m anticipating well and if a player rushes in, I can easily play the ball with my feet and have the confidence to play it and control it.”

Even though Luna makes all the plays, it’s his willingness to be vociferous that Dolan most appreciates.

“He’s a very passionate player,” Dolan said. “He takes everything so personally, whether it’s a loss or missing a tackle. It breaks his heart when things don’t go the team’s way. There are others on the team who speak up, but he’s the one who can get loud and in the face of players, and the team needs that. He directs the traffic and lets you know if you’ve done something wrong, but in a good way. He’s making sure everyone is doing their duty. He’s the loudest person in the park when he’s in goal and even louder in the midfield.”

Whenever Luna corrects a teammate, he makes sure not to go at him personally. Rather, Luna tries to make his criticism constructive, much in the same way Dolan or Ramon Delgado will when they make a pointed critique of his play.

“If I make a mistake, coach or Ramon will let me know,” Luna said. “I will apologize to the team and man up and own up to my mistake.”

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