Some of the most gratifying praise Leo Toledo received during his momentous senior season didn’t come from coaches or the media.
It came from his opponents.
“I talked to some of the players from Blessed Trinity,” said Toledo, following East Hall’s emotional state quarterfinal victory over the Titans. “They said it was one of the best games they’ve played.”
The striker, for his part, scored a hat trick despite being double-teamed for the majority of the game.
The Mercer University signee scored a staggering 79 goals in his final year with the Vikings, almost single-handedly willing his team to a state championship appearance in May at his future home in Macon. For his efforts, Toledo is The Times’ 2016 All-Area Boys Soccer Player of the Year.
Tracking down the speedy winger-turned-striker often proves tougher than expected, according to Gainesville High striker Diego Porras. The two used to play for East Hall before Porras transferred to the Red Elephants.
“I told my teammates, ‘He’s good, he’s great,’” said Porras. “The whole week, I was bothering our right back to be on him, because he’s got the skills to beat you one-one-one.”
East Hall coach Chris Horton first saw Toledo’s individual skill when the future standout was in middle school.
“You could see the potential,” said Horton. “The biggest thing he had to learn was how to be a team player. That was the biggest growth we could see, distributing the ball and working to involve his teammates.”
That adjustment came to fruition this spring, when Toledo struck a sweet rhythm of working between the middle of the park and tearing up the right wing. Depending on what his team needed, Toledo showed a remarkable knack of being at the right place at the right time.
And with Toledo’s leadership, East Hall shone. The Vikings scored 141 goals in 23 games and suffered just one loss heading into the state title game against Decatur. The lone defeat was to Class AAAA power Johnson, who went on to appear in its own state championship game.
Toledo cemented his spot in Vikings lore when he scored to give East Hall a 2-1 halftime lead in the championship game.
Although Decatur exacted a second-half comeback to pull off the 3-2 win, the striker said he held no regrets about the sacrifices it took to get him to his high level.
“I had to sacrifice nearly every day,” said Toledo, who put himself through a demanding offseason regimen with his travel team Bryson Park/KSA-98 Premier. “Get homework done before 7 (p.m.), get to practice by 8 (p.m.), get home at 11:30 p.m., then get up the next morning for school. I knew that what I was doing would pay off.”
Toledo says he’s leaning toward studying business at Mercer University, where he’ll also look to make an immediate impact under Bears coach Brad Ruzzo. The East Hall graduate said he feels confident that Mercer will encourage his quick, intelligent style of play.
Dawson County’s Alan Sanchez believes Toledo has a chance to play in the professional ranks, as long as he continues to grow as a player.
“You can’t train a player to keep up with a guy like him,” said Sanchez. “He’s got a great chance of getting scouted by (Major League Soccer) teams. He’s playing the game like it should be played at a really high level.”
Toledo, who has dreams of continuing his playing career for as far as it can take him, could follow in the footsteps of American national player Clint Dempsey, who played for fellow Southern Conference school Furman University in his college years.
“He’s still dreaming big,” said Horton. “You would too, if you were in his shoes. He’s got so much time to figure things out and he’s going to a place that will give him an opportunity to play at the next level.”
And Toledo will carry with him a strong sense of motivation. He’s hoping to make up for the disappointment of losing a state title game at Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium by helping his team compete for a conference title on nearby Bears Field with his future teammates.
“A lot of players in Hall County don’t get to play at the next level,” said Toledo. “There’s a lot of stuff that comes into it. If you want to make it, you’ve got to put in the work.”