Benefield: Healdsburg's Eric Guzman Leyva brought his love of soccer to entire community

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Eric Guzman Leyva was already impressive.

I watched Leyva and the Healdsburg High Greyhounds boys soccer team play Rancho Cotate back in January. It was the game that was very nearly not played after fans had been banned from the stands for unruly behavior during the prior game.

Tensions were high. But the night offered little drama, just good soccer. Leyva, a senior playing in his final home game, stood out on the field. He’s a dynamic striker who was clearly the heart of his team. And he stood out to me in our interview after the game, providing thoughtful and measured responses to a situation that had threatened to ruin senior night.

In a word, I was impressed.

And then I read Peter Mork’s letter.

Mork, a financial advisor and the treasurer/registrar of the Healdsburg Youth Soccer Association, wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of Leyva, who was a contender for a Community Youth Service Award scholarship that would be given to 10 seniors in the Redwood Empire on April 10.

“In my role as treasurer and registrar of the newly formed (Healdsburg Youth Soccer Association), I can unequivocally state that the program would not have been the success it was without Eric,” he wrote.

“Eric volunteered countless hours doing outreach for the program, attending school and community events to promote the new organization, single-handedly recruited the referees that were needed, and helped coach both boys and girls teams over the season. All this while attending school and participating on a competitive soccer team based in Santa Rosa. It was truly impressive.”

Readers may recall that Healdsburg has had a bad run with community soccer. Not one but two officials, in separate cases and two years apart, were found guilty of stealing from Healdsburg’s youth soccer league back in 2011 and 2013.

Confidence was shot. Kids — hundreds of them — either mostly played elsewhere or didn’t play at all. That included Eric Leyva.

The city of Healdsburg had stepped into the breach and created an in-house league for boys and girls wanting to play recreational soccer. It helped. But interest and registration seemed to lag, especially for girls as they got older.

Before the 2017 fall season, it had been almost 10 years since Healdsburg had been able to field an under-12 girls soccer team. If kids were 10 or 11 years old, they had to drive to Windsor or Cloverdale or Santa Rosa to play.

Tom McGinty, a recent transplant to town, couldn’t understand it.

“There were three girls teams for U-10 and each team had like seven players,” he said. “It was a beautiful city, with amazing parents, but the sports were kind of a little lackluster.”

There were patchwork fixes here and there and the city responded admirably to fill the void, but until Mork and McGinty and others launched the Healdsburg Youth Soccer Association after the 2017 season, there wasn’t a focused push for a stand-alone soccer program.

Mork, a lifelong Healdsburg guy with two daughters, was a wrestler in high school, but soccer wasn’t his thing. He needed to tap the right people to make this thing work. He turned to Leyva’s older brother, Rene Guzman, a Healdsburg parks and recreation staffer whom he’d met a Corazon Healdsburg event. Guzman was regularly officiating games hosted by the parks and recreation department, so Mork, who had been coaching his daughter’s team, asked Guzman if he’d lend a hand with that first U-12 squad.

“What they learned from him in one practice was more than from me in a year and a half. Then he started having Eric come down,” Mork said.

So the brothers coached 9-, 10- and 11-year-old girls. When the season ended and the girls wanted to play indoor, they coached that, too. They couldn’t help it.

“So indoor rolls around and they are down there,” Mork said, laughing. “I feel bad. I was like, ‘You guys, you don’t need to do this.’ They are just showing up, helping out.”

But it was more than coaching. When Mork needed on-the-ground know-how to launch the soccer association, the brothers proved crucial.

“I’m the registrar for the league, doing forms and birth certificates,” Mork said. “But Rene and Eric were just plugged in.”

“Getting refs? It was like, ‘Guys, where do we go?’” Mork said. “They drove it.”

But the league still needed numbers. Everybody involved knew the kids were out there around town; they just needed to get the word out that Healdsburg soccer was making a comeback.

Leyva went to schools, to community centers and to the Boys and Girls Club. He wasn’t old enough to be too far removed from hanging out at these places, so he knew most of the people and staffers there.

And Leyva, who works as an after-school mentor for elementary school kids through the parks and rec department, said he talked to the kids he saw most days after school.

“I would take my kids out to play on the grass and a bunch of them would like to play soccer and I would think, ‘This is such a good opportunity to get kids out and play,’” he said. He let their parents know of the new option.

Boosters for the new league went so far as to jump into in a parade.

“Our best outreach was literally 1,000 fliers at the FFA parade,” Mork said. “Parks and Rec had a float, so we said, ‘Hey can we walk and hand out fliers?’ Eric and Rene came, my daughter and a couple of her friends, and there were guys on the U-16 (level) who really wanted to play, so they show up with their moms.”

The resurgence is real.

In 2017, the parks and recreation program had 26 teams and 298 players, according to McGinty, who would become association president. After the launch of the HYSA in 2018, the partnership organization fielded 38 teams with 414 players.

Leyva acknowledged that the new league was something he didn’t have growing up in Healdsburg, and that was part of his motivation. He recalls playing in a league when he was perhaps five or six, but then — nothing.

He didn’t play organized soccer again until he was “maybe 13.” But he played.

He played pick-up games with Rene’s friends. He found older guys who would let him jump in. He helped teach the game to his younger brother, Anthony. In high school he signed on to play with the ’Hounds but didn’t join a competitive club team based in Santa Rosa until his junior year.

That’s an incredibly spotty resume for a guy who dominates on the field. But Leyva is driven by his love for soccer. When Mork tried to reach him on the phone the other day, he got no answer. Mork knew where he might find him. He went to the nearby field and there were Eric, Rene and Anthony — just playing soccer.

That love is hard to replicate, even for a skilled, seasoned coach, said Sara Leffew, whose daughter Ruby is on Eric and Rene’s team.

“I’m so happy we made the decision to keep her on the rec team because of Eric and Rene,” she said. “They are so dedicated.”

But they are natural teachers, too.

Leffew’s husband is a coach. He would bring Ruby to practice and watch the brothers run the training.

“He absolutely loved how they taught them fundamentals,” she said. “These guys were really teaching them to play soccer and the importance of teamwork.”

And Leffew said she admires not what they teach, but how they do it.

“It’s a lot of positive coaching. When they are pulled out of the game, there was a lot of coaching going on,” she said. “It was how they needed to improve, and then they actually put them back in the game. There was a lot of actual, real coaching.”

Despite the massive number of hours Leyva is now spending coaching and training, he wasn’t sure about it all when his older brother asked him to come aboard his sophomore year.

“At first I was like, ‘Oh, I have high school practice and I don’t know if I really want to go,’” he said. “It turned out that I really liked doing this.”

And he’s hooked.

Brian Saini’s older daughter Sophia is on Leyva and his brother’s team. She gained so much from their coaching that Saini asked the brothers to work with his younger daughters, Olivia, 9, and Gia, 7, too.

“They are like, ‘What time and where?’” Saini said. “They don’t ask for anything in return.”

When they run a practice, parents have to remind them when it’s quitting time.

“All the parents would be lined up and ready to go home and they are out there — they’d play all night if you’d let them,” he said.

Saini credits Mork and his tireless effort for breathing new life into Healdsburg soccer. And the success is based in part by finding the right guys to be on the field with kids. Saini said he wrestled with the feeling that recreational soccer wasn’t providing the level of coaching his daughters needed, but he wasn’t ready for a year-round competitive program.

“The good, quality coaching is really keeping the program alive,” he said. “That is part of the reason they are coming back year after year.”

And it’s the reason why kids want to come to practice, Mork said. At least on his daughter’s team. Brothers Leyva and Guzman are a draw.

“They were really good influences on them,” he said of the brothers.

At that game back in January, the one that was almost not played, I missed a moment. I had interviewed Leyva and ’Hounds coach Herbert Lemus and probably packed up and left. But in an email last week, Mork sent me a picture from that night that I missed seeing. It was of Eric, after the game, surrounded by Ruby Leffew, the Saini sisters and Josie and Chiara Mork. They had come to see their coach in his final high school home game. They are all smiles.

When I called Mork to tell him I wanted to write a column about Leyva’s work, he said he’d spend whatever time was necessary to sing his praises.

“He’s volunteering a lot of time to making this work and I really love that he was recognized for it,” he said.

When we talked about Leyva, we both came back at least one word that seemed to sum him up and make him stand apart. Genuine. No resume polishing, no ulterior motive, no touting his own importance. He did good for good’s sake.

And it feels good that he’s being recognized for it.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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