Jose Garcia or Nelson Herrera?
Nelson Herrera or Jose Garcia?
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Make no mistake, the two were the best players in the area this season. What they achieved this fall has been remarkable, but aside from the dazzling statistics, memorable goals, and postseason honors, what should be pointed out is first and foremost, both are terrific young men.
As such, Garcia, a senior midfielder at Wheeling, and Herrera, a senior forward at Maine West, have been chosen to co-captain the Daily Herald's all-area boys soccer team.
"What a pleasure it's been to coach Nelson this season," says Maine West coach Alan Matan. "He's just a great kid to be around, a fantastic leader as well, and the thing about him, it's all about his team and not anything else. He really doesn't like talking about himself very much."
"Jose is the same way," said Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik. "He's a great all-around player who is always aware of what's good for the team."
Both players are naturally reticent. Their desire to speak of others, namely their teammates, and the success of their teams is far more important than recapping their own exploits.
"My mother (Isabel) taught me that it's not about me, and to be respectful and humble when playing and in everything else I do," said Garcia, when asked who influenced his good nature and easy demeanor.
"I really don't like to talk about myself at all," said Herrera.
Both players have plenty willing to do that on their behalf.
"It was classic Nelson when we told him he was named co-captain along with Jose," said Matan. "Just that great big smile we've come to appreciate -- then back to work."
When opposing coaches discuss the talents of these two on the eve of the most important games of their season, you know they've made a strong impression on the soccer landscape.
"You can design your defense to stop (Garcia), but in reality, you can't for long," said Hersey coach Darren Llewellyn. "He's got so many natural moves with and without the ball, and he will just take a game over. Look at our game with Wheeling -- 4-3 in OT, and that fourth goal (Garcia scored all four), the game-winner, was truly a professional finish. I still don't know how he did what he did. And even in the MSL Cup, he was kept under wraps until his team needed him, then he makes this brilliant run and carry to get fouled in the box, and finishes his PK.
"That's what a true finisher, leader, and all-state player does, and he did it over and over again for them. Put Jose on any other team, and they instantly become a contender."
Over a standout four-year varsity career, Herrera became very well-known to the coaches in the Central Suburban North. They truly appreciated his unique skill set.
"We played to 7, 8 draws this fall, and the main reason was we couldn't finish. In fact, nobody really had a bona fide scorer, except for Nelson," said Highland Park coach Blake Novotny. "Nelson is the player everybody wants. The only true finisher that I know in our area. He can score from anywhere, and he will put the ball into the back of the net when the chance is there. Nobody can do that around here."
Novotny and Glenbrook North coach Paul Vignocchi were in the room when Herrera was voted the No. 1 player from their sectional.
"We pride ourselves on defense at GBN, but there never seemed to be an answer for him," said Vignocchi. "He had the size, strength, and shot to make something out of nothing, and he just dominated the CSL during his four years at Maine West."
As a freshman, Herrera was called up late in the season and immediately made his mark, helping send the Warriors to their first-ever appearance in a supersectional with a sensational strike just after the break to double the lead in an eventual 3-1 victory over Chicago Mather.
Four days later, the Warriors bowed out of the tournament on a frigid night at Loyola Soccer Park in Chicago, but the performance of the first-year player was that of a veteran.
"That night is one of the highlights of my career here -- it was so cold, and there were so many people cheering way before the game started. Even though we lost, it was something I'll never forget," said Herrera, who says he never gave a second thought to opting out of high school soccer in favor of club. "I had a chance to play academy soccer during my sophomore year, but it didn't come together for me, and I am glad it didn't, because I like my teammates and playing before my friends, and you never get that playing club soccer."
The sport of soccer has been part of the Herrera family tree for quite some time.
The brother of Nelson Herrera's grandfather played for the El Salvadoran national team, and Nelson has been playing the sport for as long as he can remember.
"Nelson makes it look so easy, and what I really enjoy is just watching him, and literally seeing the wheels turn inside his head of what his next move or run might be. He is tactically way up there, and he sees things long before they happen or open up, and before you know it, he's in a position to score or give a great ball for an assist," said Matan.
Matan compared his co-captain to a shark exploding out of the water to capture his meal.
"That's Nelson. He can be quiet in a game, create some space for others, hold and knock the ball around, and almost seem disinterested, then bam -- he's put one in."
Four times this season, Herrera scored 4 goals in one game. He also had a pair of hat tricks.
He finished with an astounding 37 goals this season and 93 for his career, both program records.
During his prolific career, Herrera became a lethal dribbler, a superlative header and long-distance shooter, one of the better free-kick takers around, and also wowed fans with his explosive pace.
His 27 assists also show his unselfishness, using precise passes and imagination in the final third.
"I just like to play soccer, and to be part of this team and program" said Herrera when asked to give a few highlights or special moments he orchestrated during his prep career, and all with that familiar smile of his.
"I can think of several great moments he's had this year, including senior night against St. Patrick," said Matain, "or when he was so quiet in the first half against Hinsdale South, then hit a shot that nobody was even expecting, and watching it just explode as it neared the goal before going in. Just amazing."
Herrera is still sorting out his options for next fall, but is looking at several out-of-state D-3 schools to continue playing the sport he cannot get enough of.
Garcia entered this season already in the top 10 in all-time scoring at Wheeling following his wonderful junior season, in which he accounted for 66 percent of the Wildcats' scoring with 19 goals and 14 assists.
But something was missing for the co-captain.
"We weren't winning, and if you're not having success, then scoring and getting all-conference or all-area doesn't really mean a thing. It's really about your teammates playing well, and we just didn't," said Garcia.
Much of that had to do with the absence of the Wildcats superb defender, Nathan Laude, who was out the entire year recovering from illness. It's no coincidence Laude's return to health was a missing piece this fall in Wheeling run to its MSL title and regional championship.
"Jose is so family-oriented," said Wheeling assistant coach Leo Elizalde, who starred at Dominican University after a superb career at Wheeling, where he was named all-area captain in the 2008 season. "It's what makes him so grounded. His teammates are like family, and it's kind of refreshing to see a person his age feel that way. It really says something about his personality, and why he's had his success thus far.
"It's kind of surreal to be coaching someone who is the next Daily Herald captain after me. I am very proud of Jose, who is tremendous young man, and obviously an amazing player with unbelievable talent."
Elizalde is hoping to see his protege move on and continue playing at Dominican next fall.
Garcia just missed earning all-state last season, but it only seemed to strengthen his drive this fall. He reached a new level of acclaim and was voted the No. 1 player in his section to earn all-state status, and a few days later, it was revealed he'd netted Mid-Suburban East player of the year honors.
"I've played against and with Nelson, and he's a great player, so to be the co-captain with him is really something else," Garcia said. "And to be truthful, it was hard to believe at first. But after that, I was really excited about it for my teammates, who made it all possible."
Garcia steadily added to his impressive resume with one strong effort after another this season, all the while helping his club rise to the top of the MSL table and eventually a shootout victory over Barrington in the championship matchup. All of that was made possible by a spectacular three-game stretch in which Garcia scored 9 of the 10 goals the Wildcats put in.
His 4-game effort against Hersey was capped by a game-winner which seemed to defy logic as Garcia brillantly bent his shot around a sea of defenders and the Hersey keeper. One day later, Garcia popped in all 3 of his team's goals in another OT thriller, this time against Rolling Meadows. Then, perhaps saving his best for last, he had 2 Messi-like goals did in a 2-1 decision over Palatine.
"We were up 1-0, then Garcia just did his magic," said Palatine coach Willie Filian. "The mark of a true top player is someone who can take over a game. We haven't seen Herrera, and we hear he's a terrific player, but what Jose did that night against us, and everybody else in the MSL and around the area, is the type of stuff the best players do. He's fun to watch, even when he's breaking your team down and apart, and worthy of everything he's earned."
"I'm a little biased towards my guys, but I find it hard to believe there isn't a more technical, highly skilled player, who can do everything out there this year, and it's not just me," said Wheeling coach Ed Uhrik. "I've heard it from a number of coaches as well. He's actually a very disciplined defender, which sometimes is overlooked because of his attacking genius, and he's such a team guy as well. But most importanly, he's polite, caring, respectful of his teammates and opponents, and a very coachable, terrific young man."
Before Tuesday's sectional semifinal matchup against New Trier, Garcia had 27 goals and 7 assists for the best single-season point total (61) in program history. Against the Trevians, Garcia assisted teammate Ivan Mancilla in Wheeling's 1-0 victory, which puts the Wildcats in Saturday's 3 p.m. sectional final against host Evanston.
Garcia's career marks of 54 goals, 30 assists, and 138 points are good for second place all-time behind Mike Norsk, who led the 1995 Wildcats to their only other MSL Cup appearance and a 21-3-2 record.
An explosive free-kick taker, Garcia could play across the top if needed, but seemed most adept as a full-service midfielder who kept a steady flow of scoring chances coming for his team.
"It's been great coming back this season to have a year like this, and especially with most of the guys who all started together on the freshman team," said Garcia. "The time has gone so fast, and none of us want it to end until we get to the state tournament. But either way, it's been great playing for this coaching staff, and at Wheeling with all of my friends. And that's the best part of it all."