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SAN RAFAEL ? Leslie Ziegler is the most amazing, dedicated soccer mom in the history of the sport because she would pick up her kid, Alec, after school and take him to soccer practice.

Huh? Why? Isn?t that what soccer moms do, take their kids to practice? That?s true, except for this one little thing.

Soccer practice was 220 miles away.

?My parents did say they would support me in playing soccer,? said Ziegler, a 2007 Montgomery graduate, now a junior defender for Dominican University, ?although I think they maybe didn?t know what they were getting into.?

Ziegler?s story winds like Highway 101 from Eureka to Santa Rosa. It curves and dips and rises to where the mere telling of it strains credibility, not to mention common sense. But this is what you do for love and in the summer of 2003 Ziegler had to decide what he would do for his love of soccer.

He was about to enter Eureka High School as a freshman. Ziegler had been playing soccer for five years, had obvious talent and was told by both his high school coach and his club coach that if he wanted to develop that talent, he needed to play elsewhere. The Eureka area, they said, would not be able to offer the kind of instruction and competition to match his skills. Ziegler and parents, Leslie and Paul, did their research and came up with Santa Rosa United, the club team.

Except Santa Rosa is 220 miles from Eureka. Dad and mom were entrenched in their jobs, Paul a budget administrator for the Eureka School District, Leslie a receptionist at a chiropractor?s office. But they were willing, they offered, to drive their son down to Santa Rosa to practice and play for the SRU U14 team when Ziegler wasn?t playing soccer for Eureka High.

?They did think driving down to Santa Rosa four times a week was too much,? Ziegler.

God love them for that.

So for six months during his freshman year Leslie would pick up Alec from school at 2 p.m. and head south, in time for the SRU practice at 6 p.m.

Two hours later Leslie would pick up Alec from practice and drive back to Eureka, getting home around midnight. Mom and son, on average, did that three days a week, twice for practices and once for a game.

During his sophomore year they made that thrice-weekly trip for eight months to the SRU U15 practices/games.

During his junior year Ziegler, now able to drive, made it to Santa Rosa three times a week for another eight months to join the SRU U16 team.

?I can?t even imagine,? said Jon Delano, Ziegler?s coach at Dominican University.

To be sure Ziegler had very understanding teachers at Eureka. They allowed it, as long as he made grades, and the whip-smart Ziegler always made grades.

Every six months mom and dad would ask their son the same series of questions: ?Do you still want to do this? Is soccer still this important? Are you doing this for yourself or for us? If you are doing this for us, stop doing it. You should only be doing this for yourself.?

Paul Ziegler had been the starting centerfielder on the University of Southern California?s national championship baseball team in 1978. Dad knew about pressure and commitment and knew it had to be self-generated and self-contained in his son, not his folks. Otherwise Alec would burn out on the soccer and then, worse still, not apply the necessary, dedicated focus needed to negotiate 440 miles of twisty highway, half of it at night.

During that junior year Ziegler spent four of those eight commuting months without either a radio or CD player. His Toyota Forerunner had been vandalized, his entertainment console ripped to shreds.

?I did a lot of singing to myself,? he said. ?Rolled the windows down. Made it cold.?

Before his senior year mom and dad cried uncle. The gas expense was killing them. Alec had a choice. Either quit Santa Rosa United and the drive or move to Santa Rosa. His folks would rent him an apartment. Alec chose the $1,250-a-month apartment near Howarth Park. He went to Montgomery. He was 16 when his senior year began. He lived by himself for a year. His grades actually improved, a 4.17 his first semester, a 4.0 his second semester.

?All I did was study,? said Ziegler, now 20, an English major at Dominican. ?I didn?t know anyone.?

It was at about this time during the interview that I called a timeout to digest all that I had heard. I told Ziegler I had heard of soccer moms and kids obsessing over the sport but this, I said, was off the charts.

?I understand what I did isn?t for anyone, that most wouldn?t do it and that most shouldn?t do it,? Ziegler said. ?I know it?s a little out there to begin with. I get my fair share of disbelief.?

The final number was astounding to comprehend. Three round trips a week with each trip 440 miles; that?s 1,320 miles a week. Four weeks in a month; that?s 5,280 miles a month. Twenty-two months of commuting over three years; that?s 116,160 miles to play soccer.

Not for a living, mind you. Just to get better. He drove 116,160 miles ? give or take a thousand or two ? to become a better amateur soccer player.

I believe Ziegler felt a momentary shortness of breath.

?I never looked at it that way,? he said.

As he shouldn?t. Ziegler saw it as fun. As he should have been.

?Still, now, I know every curve,? he said.

Ziegler knew, he said, that the cops and their radar guns hang out on the 101 on the south side of Willits, as cars descend from a hill. ?Got to be careful around Cloverdale, too,? he said.

Since Ziegler would return to Eureka usually at night he tried not to make too many stops; school was in the morning. Yet there was the Chief Drive-In in Laytonville. And the Aztec Grill inside the Chevron in Willits, well, ?they got to know me so well they would start to make the burrito the minute I walked through the door.?

Ziegler knows he gave up more than just a few winks sleep for soccer. He missed his junior prom. He missed homecoming his sophomore and junior years. The oyster and jazz festivals around Eureka, the ones he loved attending, he missed those, too. And that Toyota, well, 2? months ago it finally just gave out at 193,000 miles; the poor thing just lost its will to live.

If love made him do this, what is that love like for Ziegler? His answer should provide the textbook definition of attraction for any athlete in any sport.

?When I am on the soccer field,? said Ziegler, 6-feet, 185 pounds, ?there is no other time in my life in which I am that focused. When I am on the field there is nothing else. I am consumed.?

His body, his spirit, it?s as if Ziegler is inhabited, taken over. It?s invasion of the soccer snatchers. And lest one think the sport has made Ziegler a dysfunctional, self-absorbed zealot, in truth he is exactly the opposite. He is the team captain at Dominican, as he has been on teams throughout his career.

?There are three types of leaders in sport,? said Delano, 28, who coached Ziegler for three years at Santa Rosa United. ?One who does it by verbally communicating. One who does it by example. And the third is the rare one, who can do it both by words and example. Alec is that rare one. I am fortunate to have him because I suspect I?ll go through the rest of my coaching career and never have anyone with the leadership, the maturity, of Alec. Where he goes, they go.?

Delano already has told Ziegler he will recommend him as his assistant coach upon graduation. To that Ziegler is two thumbs up because ?I don?t know what I would do without soccer.?

It?s not that Ziegler doesn?t have a thought outside of soccer. Rather it?s the interplay during a game that fascinates him: strategies, player movement, and the famous Ziegler Input.

?I have no qualms helping everyone out,? he said. ?It?s critical I direct traffic. But I am always conscious on how I comport myself.?

The Dominican players, of course, never think for a moment that they would hear their captain whine, moan or groan. They know his backstory.

Kinda hard to keep such an epic story a secret. They know that if Alec Ziegler was going to snivel or blame or abdicate responsibility, he would have already done it. About 116,160 miles ago, give or take.

For more on North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com

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