Of each and every goal that Leo Toledo bagged in 2015 for East Hall, few were as memorable as the one that gave the Vikings a six-goal lead against a first-round playoff opponent.
East Hall, already up 8-3 in the second half over hapless Jefferson, was making a counter-attack from its own end when Toledo found the ball at his feet.
On the halfway line, he was the furthest Viking forward. What’s a natural-born striker to do?
“I volleyed it as hard as I could,” said Toledo, a rising senior. “I had no one around me, everyone was behind me and I was like ‘I might as well go for it.’”
Toledo scored eight goals in that game as East Hall romped to an 11-3 home win to open the postseason.
The swift forward tallied 60 goals for the sixth-ranked Vikings (14-6-1), who fell in the state quarterfinals to eventual Class AAA finalist Calhoun.
But Toledo, The Times’ All-Area boys soccer player of the year, said this week that he was far from satisfied with his performance, considering he was unable to help lead his team to a state championship berth. East Hall lost its opportunity to secure a Region 7-AAA title when rival West Hall came away with a 2-0 win in the regular season.
Sporting a No. 2 seed in the state playoffs, the Vikings had to face an undefeated Calhoun team in the third round, and were shut out 1-0.
West Hall went on to defeat Calhoun 2-0 this May in Macon to win the Class AAA state title, the school’s first team title.
While he was happy to exceed his own expectations (a modest 30 goals a season), Toledo admitted Wednesday that he rued a perceived lack of his own leadership to push his team over the line.
The striker scored 57 percent of his team’s 105 goals over the course of the regular season, but was unable to convert against West Hall or Calhoun, a fact that rankles him daily.
“We didn’t win state, we didn’t win region, so none of them matter,” he said. “I get a lot of stuff for that from friends, like West Hall kids. They have the right, too. I didn’t score when we needed to.”
Toledo eased some of his pain with a strong performance with his club team in the U-17 Georgia State Cup. He scored in the championship game in late May, a booming strike from the top of the penalty box, to help his club team Bryson Park/KSA-98 Premier to a title.
He still keeps a video of the moment on his Instagram profile, and likes to occasionally watch it. Toledo often reminisces of the past.
At 15, he convinced his parents, Maria Cortez and Leo Toledo Sr., to let him join the Gwinnett County-based travel team because he felt he had a better chance to get a college scholarship. The younger Toledo now travels an hour each way to practice four times a week in Lilburn, where he trains with state-wide talent from Brookwood, Parkview or St. Pius X high schools.
The rising senior has two college offers so far, but is holding out for more in the hope that he’ll attract the same talent that some of his club teammates have gotten.
“The level is completely different,” said KSA coach Bruno Kalonji. “They’re men, the level of competition is very high. The level of play is much higher, more challenging. It helps Leo increase his speed of play so when he goes to high school, he can be faster.”
But Toledo values his high school teammates more than any other group. He once had the chance to transfer to Johnson High and link up with former club teammate Bryant Anaya, but Toledo said he turned it down to stay a Viking.
Sometimes he even tries, tongue-in-cheek, to recruit his friends from other school systems to join him at East Hall. With pieces like Gainesville forward Diego Porras on board, according to Toledo, East Hall would have stood a better chance of advancing into the state semifinals.
“(Toledo) has a great future,” said Kalonji, who has coached the rising senior for three years. “I think he’ll play for Division-I somewhere, I can definitely see it.”
After the West Hall loss, Toledo scored one of four penalties to push East Hall past Dawson County in a penalty-kick shootout that guaranteed its No. 2 seed.
But it’s the chances he couldn’t convert this spring that still haunts Toledo every now and then. The striker blamed heavy rain at the West Hall game for his team’s poor play, and said he should have converted a late free kick against the Spartans that skimmed over the crossbar.
Those missed opportunities now serve as fuel to Toledo’s fire as he looks forward to his final year as a Viking. He’s redoubled his efforts at the gym and in personal training, with the hope that he can work with his East Hall teammates early in the fall to improve their chemistry.
Often, he said, friends from the Vikings football team or basketball team will encourage him in the hall or pump him up before big games. Toledo simply wants to fulfill everyone’s expectations.
“They’ll say, ‘you better lead your squad, you’ve got to do your thing,’” he said. “It’s your team to lead.”
As captain and de facto leader of his team, nothing less than a title will make his high school career feel like a success.
And even if he has to volley home a shot from midfield, leading his teammates in an all-out attack from the front, Toledo said he’s willing to make the sacrifices to turn East Hall into a state champion.
“I want to be the best to come out of East Hall, for them to put me as an example,” he said. “It’s always been my school, always been my place. I’ve got to show my loyalty.”