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Boys Soccer Player of the Year: West Hall's Juan Arbalaez
Injury couldn't stop Spartans' senior leader
West Hall's Juan Arbalaez is the Times' 2009 Boys Soccer Player of the Year - photo by SARA GUEVARA

OAKWOOD Sitting on the bench during his team’s quarterfinal game against Eagles Landing, West Hall senior Juan Arbalaez thought his days of playing high school soccer were over.

Sidelined with what he assumed was a partially torn meniscus in his left knee, he watched as his team rolled to a 3-0 win, propelling them to the Class AAA semifinals and one win away from playing for a state title.

"It felt horrible to not be out there with my team," Arbaleaz said of that game. "It was a bad feeling and I wish I could have played that game."

He couldn’t — and didn’t — but that didn’t mean he would never suit up for the Spartans again.

On the morning of the team’s semifinal game against Oconee County, Arbalaez woke up with less pain in his knee. He warmed up, got the OK from the trainer and with 25 minutes gone in the first half, he took the field.

Because of his gutsy performance in that game, as well as his irreplaceable role on the Spartans, Arbalaez has been named The Times 2009 Boys Soccer Player of the Year.

"He is so passionate about soccer," West Hall coach Wolfgang Jager said. "When he goes out on the field, that’s his life.

"He wanted to see if there was anything he could do to contribute for team," he added. "I give him a lot of respect and admire him for being able to go out after that type of injury and play as well as he did."

Not only did he play well, but his goal with 10:42 left in the game led the Spartans to the state championship game.

"That was one of the best feelings I ever had in my life," Arbalaez said of the goal. "I felt like I had to be there to help my team. I wasn’t going to force it, but I felt I had to be out there to motivate my team."

That motivation carried the team to the title game, but it failed to bring home a championship, as West Hall lost 3-0 to St. Pius X.

"I wanted to win it all, but they were a better team," Arbalaez said. "I still feel good because we went that far, but I still have that little feeling like we could have won it all. We were there and we had a chance and didn’t take advantage of it."

Despite failing to win the championship, Arbalaez experienced plenty of milestones during his final year at West Hall. The Spartans were ranked in the top 10 for the majority of the season (they finished third in Class AAA and 15th in all classifications); they won the Northeast Georgia Mountains Cup (beating their rival Johnson in the final); they won the Area 7-AAA title and for the first time in school history, they reached the state title game.

What made it all the more special, is that Arbaleaz was able to take the ride with his childhood friends Rudy Vazquez, Israel Del Toro and Alex Munoz.

"Those guys are the best," Arbalaez said. "They’re there for me. They’re great friends and great players. I don’t know how to explain it, it feels like we’re brothers."

With graduation in the rear view mirror, those brothers are now headed in separate directions. And for Arbalaez, he doesn’t know which direction that is.

He has scholarship offers from Indiana, Illinois-Chicago and Rutgers, but he may ultimately end up playing soccer at the much smaller Belmont-Abbey in North Carolina. He doesn’t know.

"I get homesick too easily," he said. "That’s why I ended up not going to Chicago.

"I need to make a decision soon," he added. "I’ll figure it out."

Before he makes that decision, Arbalaez will spend his time on the soccer field, training to get his knee back to 100 percent — he says it’s about 80 percent now — and playing with Atlanta FC, a team comprised of elite amateur players that competes in the National Premier Soccer League.

Once he finally makes his decision, he’ll head to the college of his choice and from there, hopefully to Mexico to play professionally.

He doesn’t know where his soccer career will take him, but he knows that no matter where he ends up, he’ll never forget his final season at West Hall.

"I’ll remember the crowd once we made it to state," he said. "I’ll remember spending time with my friends and all my teammates. And I’ll probably remember the goals."

He scored plenty in his career at West Hall, but he’ll remember one in particular.

"The Oconee goal," he said.

That’s fitting, seeing he never thought he would get the chance to score it.

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