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The Gladiators have playoff aspirations in the Tri-Valley Conference, in large part due to their last line of defense.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Gladstone High School senior Asher Gonzolez leads the Gladiator boys soccer team as its goalkeeper, and he is also an excellent student off the field.

To this day, he's not sure why he stuck with soccer.

Asher Gonzolez started playing goalie during his eighth-grade soccer season and struggled mightily. He was a sieve in goal, rarely making saves.

"I don't even know why after that year I kept playing it," Gonzolez said. "But I'm glad I stuck with it."

An eighth-grade Gonzolez wouldn't recognize the keeper he's transformed himself into today. He now guards the net for Gladstone High School, and his senior night is fast approaching on Tuesday, Oct. 18, at home against Crook County. It will be a moment of reflection on the 180-degree turnaround that Gonzolez has engineered.

The goalkeeper, who was once so bad that he considered quitting, will be relied on down the stretch this season as the Gladiators look to clinch a postseason bid in the Tri-Valley Conference.

RELATED STORY: Gladstone girls soccer chasing a state title

So, how did he become the keeper he is today?

Well, time and practice, of course, but Gonzolez also notes the privilege of working alongside coaches with an eye for the position and the ability to translate skills from other sports.

Ryan Hardwick, who has overseen Gonzolez's development since sophomore year, was a goalkeeper in the past. Even if the innate talent wasn't present in his new pupil at first, the commitment to improvement was.

Despite his ascension into one of the conference's premier goalkeepers, Gonzolez often beats his teammates to practice. In fact, when coach Hardwick arrives, he's usually met by his goalie, who has been patiently waiting to get to work.

"It's just like, if you're not early, you're late, kind of thing," Gonzolez said. "If you're on time, you're also late, so I've got to be safe rather than sorry."

Gonzolez doubles as a third baseman for the Gladiator baseball team. That cache of footwork from baseball has come in handy as he has taken one of a goalkeeper's unsung roles and made it his calling card.

At 6-foot-1, the multi-sport athlete doesn't lack physical traits. Even still, pure shot-stopping isn't what made Gonzolez the player he's become today. Coach Hardwick said it is the goalie's distribution, his accuracy with punts and his ability to make pinpoint throws over half the field that have turned him into such a weapon.

"That's what sets him apart and what really makes him dangerous for our team," Hardwick said. "As much as the goalie is the last line of defense, when he makes that save, he immediately becomes that first line of offense."

Gonzolez says that footwork, and particularly that throwing power, came from baseball.

"It's honestly a pretty similar motion," he said. "I think being comfortable at throwing it in baseball has helped me be comfortable throwing it for soccer."

Hardwick said some of the situational training his keeper learned in baseball have translated, too.

"He just makes the harder saves look really easy, which is really why he's able to make so many saves."

The saves aren't the only thing piling up. For as crucial as Gonzolez has been for a surging Gladiator squad, he's not all about athletics. He spent last summer on a host of college visits — six, to be exact. He looked both locally and across the state. Nothing's caught his eye quite yet, though.

"Nothing really seemed that amazing," he said. "I looked more into what I actually want to do career-wise to figure that out."

After turning himself into a well-oiled machine, Gonzolez likes the idea of something in the world of engineering.

While Hardwick has sent players to the college level before and sees some of that potential in his keeper, Gonzolez — who recently received the National Hispanic Recognition Award from the College Board — is more intent on finding an academic fit.

Still, nobody is ruling out a future in collegiate soccer for Gonzolez. In time, his decision will cement itself. Until then, he has work to do as the last line of defense for a team with serious postseason aspirations.

And given how this all started, that in itself is quite the accomplishment.

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