There were 27 minutes remaining in the first half of last Friday night’s National District boys’ soccer final between Yorktown and Edison when the new role of last year’s Northern Region Player of the Year, the Patriots’ Alex Herrera, began to take shape.
Edison had just scored the game’s first goal and in a matter of moments, Yorktown coach Dave Wood looked down his bench and Herrera began warming up. Not a word was spoken.
That Herrera was even attempting to play was a minor miracle. Coming off a junior campaign in which he was named first team all-state and all-Met, the finals Friday were just Herrera’s fourth game during his senior season thanks to high ankle sprains on both legs.
Herrera first injured his left ankle in a preseason scrimmage in the beginning of March. He returned to the lineup for a March 31 regular-season meeting against Edison, but drew a red card early on, which left him on the sidelines for the remainder of that eventual 4-0 loss and the following game, an even more lopsided 5-0 defeat to Wakefield. Then, the George Mason-bound midfielder sprained his right ankle against rival Washington-Lee the game after that, on April 15. It was his last appearance until tournament time.
But it was news to those in attendance Friday as Herrera — after 10 minutes of warm up — entered the contest and promptly gave Yorktown a momentum-swinging goal with less than two minutes remaining before halftime that ultimately catapulted the Patriots to a 2-1 victory over the Eagles, their third-straight National District title.
“I’m still hurting but it’s physical therapy, physical therapy, keep playing,” said Herrera afterwards, on his way to get some ice for those aching ankles. “It has just been a roller coaster, up and down, but at the end of the day, we got it done.”
<b>HEADING INTO</b> the final week of the regular season, though, the only thing that looked finished was Yorktown’s dominance over the rest of the National District. Wood and the Patriots went an unblemished 17-0 against district opponents in 2007 and 2008, but with two games remaining in the 2009 regular season, his team was a mediocre 4-6-3 overall.
A lot of that inconsistency had to do with the volatile nature of the Yorktown lineup. On top of Herrera, the Patriots had a slew of injuries, noticeable even to the naked eye with players like senior CJ Bartholemew playing games with a cast on.
But two late-season victories over West Springfield and Lake Braddock “catapulted” the Patriots into the postseason, according to Wood, and the luxury of having a player as talented as Herrera took the momentum to another height.
After a 4-2 victory over Mount Vernon in the first round last Monday, Yorktown pulled off the upset of the tournament, defeating No. 1 seed Wakefield, 2-1. Herrera only played the last 12 minutes of that contest, but it was more than enough time to come off the bench and score the winning goal.
Throw in the game-tying tally against Edison, which was later augmented by a second-half score from senior Sergio Mejia, and it’s clear Arlington soccer’s version of Willis Reed was sorely missed this season.
“He’s just a leader,” Mejia said of Herrera. “He gives us a little bit more confidence and we work harder. I guess that’s why we play faster, better, stronger with him. It’s his confidence.”
“It’s good for him sometimes to sit on the bench, see how the game’s playing out, and then he can change it,” said Wood.
<b>HERRERA’S EXPLOITS</b> on the soccer field are not reserved for just Yorktown (9-6-3 overall). He’s also a starter for one of the area’s best club teams, the DC United U-18 team, which features several future Division-I players.
That commitment could force Herrera to miss more action. Between May 21 and May 25, he’s scheduled to take part in a showcase tournament for professional scouts, right in time to conflict with the Northern Region quarterfinals should Yorktown advance past Lee in first-round action Tuesday, after the Connection’s deadline.
Not that Herrera is too concerned. He’s learned the hard way about that old adage not to count chickens before they hatch.
“It might [conflict], but I gotta get there first,” a smiling Herrera said, clinging to his newest championship plaque. “I had big expectations at the beginning of this year, but I guess this is what happens. It feels a lot better now that I came back and won the district.”
Yorktown won its first round regional matchup with Lee, 4-1, Tuesday night. The Patriots will take on Centreville in the Northern Region quarterfinals Thursday night at Yorktown.