When Uriel Velasco was 7 years old, his mother enrolled him in soccer classes.
“Not because I was doing bad things,” said Velasco, “but because she wanted to keep me away from bad things.”
Eight years later, it looks as though Velasco’s mother knew what she was doing.
Velasco, a sophomore midfielder, leads Vance High boys’ soccer team in points with nine (four goals, five assists). Since making the varsity squad as a freshman, he has become an integral part of the Cougars’ attack.
“(Velasco is) very technical on the ball,” Vance coach Matt Clapp said. “He kind of controls the whole midfield for us. So without him distributing, we’d have a really hard time scoring.
“Anytime we do have an opportunity to score, it’s usually coming through his play in the middle of the field.”
Of the Cougars’ 16 goals this season, nine have resulted directly from Velasco’s play.
At 3-4 in the MECKA 4A conference standings through Sept. 30 (4-7-1 overall), the Cougars are looking to make their first state playoff appearance since 2011. And with seven conference games remaining on the schedule, there’s certainly time.
On Sept. 30, Vance got a first-hand look at a Hough squad that has been at the top of the league for the better part of the past five seasons.
Hough walked away with the 3-1 win to improve to 7-0 in league games this year, but the match was closer than the final score suggests.
Hough jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, but Vance battled back to make it a one-goal game 10 minutes into the second half before a handball in the box allowed the Huskies to put the game away.
“(Hough is) a good team,” Clapp said. “I just thought we did a good job battling back there in the second half, getting a goal early, making it 2-1. And then we got kind of unfortunate with a handball in the box and the penalty kick. I thought we played a much better second half than we did in the first.
“We’ve lost a lot of 2-1, 1-0 games. That was our seventh penalty kick we’ve given up, so there’s unlucky situations for us so far this season,” Clapp said. “So our goal is to just … keep battling and make sure we get ourselves in position to make the playoffs and then see what we can do from there.”
After scoring two goals and assisting on another in a game against fourth-place Hopewell the previous week, Velasco – who played despite an injured ear – was a marked man in the loss to Hough, drawing multiple defenders on every touch.
“Since I couldn’t head the ball, every time they played the ball in the air two players came on me,” Velasco said.
Velasco said his main goal was for the team to improve its chemistry and learn to work together better. His coach shared that sentiment.
“We’re just trying to make sure we have proper spacing and that we are communicating with one another,” Clapp said. “A lot of time we get frustrated after a turnover or a missed opportunity to score.
“It’s about being able to pick yourself back up after a missed opportunity. That’s something (Velasco) does well.”
As a freshman on the varsity team last season, Velasco often had difficulty finding the right times to speak up and take on any kind of leadership role. That has changed dramatically this season.
“Even though he’s young, the guys are listening to him,” Clapp said. “His play is similar (in skill to what it was last year). It’s his leadership now that’s better.
“He’s much more vocal now in games and practice. I think there were times last year where, as a freshman, he wasn’t ready to take that role, and this year there’s been a big difference.
“He steps up and lets the guys know when they did something wrong, but not in a negative way,” Clapp said. “And he lets them know when they did something right as well. His leadership has improved tenfold from last year.”
After the loss the Hough, Clapp and Velasco remained on the sidelines together, long after everyone else had left.
“We’re always working hard trying to get better and trying to get where we want to be, trying to get there,” said Clapp, gesturing toward the Hough side of the field.
“That’s where we want to be. They’ve been the model of success in our league for the last three or four years, and that’s the goal. With some hard work in the next couple of years, hopefully we’ll be there.”