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Eyeing The Goal - Villapudua Battles Back
The ball left Natalia Villapudua's left foot and screamed towards the bottom left corner of the goal just as an Orestimba defender crashed into the Riverbank High freshman and forced her to tumble into the grass.

When Villapudua looked up, the product of her shot was resting neatly inside the net of the Orestimba goal for a go-ahead score in the second half.

A tally later, Riverbank escaped Orestimba with a 3-1 victory, rallying behind the momentum built by Villapudua in only her second game back since a freak injury during Riverbank's preseason on March 6.

The injury caused permanent damage to Villapudua's central vision, but the gutty underclassman fought her way back to the pitch just 42 days after a soccer ball jarred her eye deeper into her socket before it popped back into place with irreparable force.

"It's an unfortunate thing that happened to her, but she is still living life to the fullest and that is the kind of great person that she is," Riverbank coach Martin Gonzales said. "I had had the pleasure of teaching Natalia in third, fifth and sixth grade (at the Riverbank Language Academy) and I can tell you that she soaks up instruction like a sponge."

Villapudua is one of the bright spots on a Lady Bruin soccer team that has been plagued by injuries, inexperience and a lack of commitment in 2012. The team is just 2-5 in the Trans-Valley and has twice beaten Orestimba to stay out of the league cellar.

Villapudua wasn't around for the first five conference contests because her eye injury left her medically ineligible until her doctors could clear her for play. She was immediately referred to an optometrist on March 6 after an attempted cross from a Ripon Christian forward came directly upwards and did the jarring damage to the back of Villapudua's eye.

The optometrist referred the family to a retina specialist, who kept close watch on the situation as Villapudua continued to bleed in her eye for two weeks after the collision. She was taken away from all physical activity during that time, ultimately learning that her peripheral vision would gradually return but her central vision in the eye would be burdened by dark spots.

But while doctors scrambled to diagnose and help her rehabilitate, Villapudua was already eyeing a return to the soccer field.

"The same day I was injured I had already decided that no matter what I was going to come back to soccer," Villapudua said. "It's not going to affect me while I play and it's not going to hold me back from doing something I want to do."

The grim determination to return had Villapudua and her mother bound for several appointments a week as the freshman desperately hoped to be medically cleared to compete with each visit to a physician. When doctors cleared her to play with protective goggles the same day of a contest with Escalon on April 17, Villapudua nearly danced out of her skin.

"I was really excited the whole day before the game, jumping up and down," Villapudua said. "At first it was tough because my goggles would get sweaty and foggy but it's something that I have to deal with now."

Villapudua made an impression with passionate and speedy play along the sidelines to stifle Escalon players during the contest. Two days later, she scored her first prep goal as the Bruins rallied to overcome a 1-0 deficit and upend Orestimba.

The score was a small but fitting reward for a player who had sacrificed her own vision to play a game she became infatuated with as an RLA seventh grader. Nearly all successful underclassmen in soccer come into the prep programs with a long history of travel, competitive and Olympic-development experience, but Villapudua's prior work experience was relegated to around 15 games a season in two years on RLA's girls soccer team. She didn't have time for travel soccer because her weeks were occupied by the extensive dance classes she took in Modesto. The nine-year veteran of ballet and jazz has always been a terrific athlete, but only recently developed her fit build to excel in an aggressive sporting environment.

"Ballet is a good foundation for all things," Natalia's mother Stefanie Villapudua said. "It definitely works balance, coordination and core strength and that has helped her in sports."

Stefanie struggled with her own regret in the days after her daughter's injury, but ultimately grew to respect and admires her decision to return the team.

"At one point I had told her to choose dance or soccer to stay committed to, but when she chose both I gave in," Stefanie said. "When this happened I was mad at myself that I let her do both because now she has this lifelong, permanent injury, but Natalia's attitude in how she dealt with the situation somehow made everything okay.

"What gives me the right to feel bad and worried when she has such a great attitude? She actually told me that I had to be kidding her if I thought she would stop playing soccer just because she was hit by a soccer ball."