By Mark Selig, Daily News-Record
EMU sophomore forward Mitchell Leap heads a ball during practice Monday in Park View. Photo by Nikki Fox
Mitchell Leap isn’t ashamed of it, no matter how much grief his friends or Eastern Mennonite University soccer teammates give him. Leap is proud to be an unabashed fan of Real Madrid winger Cristiano Ronaldo.
Where teenage girls have posters of the Jonas Brothers on their walls, Leap has a poster of Ronaldo on his.
Leap has not one, but two Ronaldo jerseys, he watches all of the Portuguese player’s games on television (and records the ones he can’t watch live), and uses Ronaldo highlights to pump himself up before games.
“He has some of the fastest feet in the world; watch his stopovers,” Leap said in awe Monday after practice. “He can shoot right- and left-footed, he’s so fast. He hardly has a weakness in his game.”
While the 5-foot-10, 150-pound Leap, obviously, isn’t as flawless as his pin-up hero, the sophomore’s numbers for the Royals this season have been Ronaldo-esque: In 13 games, Leap has scored nine of EMU’s 16 goals and assisted on two others. He was named Old Dominion Athletic Conference Player of the Week after scoring twice and assisting on two goals last week. (See Leap’s roster page)
“One thing I’ve been doing well is taking advantage of the chances that I do get,” Leap said. “I’m getting more opportunities. I don’t know if it’s anything I’m doing or getting better balls from my teammates, I’m just finding myself in better places to score.”
Royals coach Roger Mast has been particularly impressed with the forward’s “competitive nature.” Leap said that losses – even ties – simply put him in a bad mood, and when he’s in that mood, he plays with ramped-up aggression, tackling more often and taking out his frustration on opponents.
Monday at practice, the Royals were broken into two teams for a competitive drill. Leap’s team lost the exhibition, but before the team regrouped for the next drill, the Harrisonburg native and former Eastern Mennonite High School standout shouted, “Best out of three?”
Mast obliged, calling for a rematch, and Leap’s team, at last, came away victorious.
Except from Leap, the Royals’ offense has not produced points this season, resulting in a 3-5-5 overall record and 1-2-2 mark in ODAC play. With one offensive power source so much more efficient than the rest – Leap has had his foot in on 69 percent of EMU’s goals – the team’s strategy has become clearer.
“We want to get the ball into his feet as much as we can,” sophomore forward Muoka Musau said. “If we can get the ball into him as much as we can, that’s probably our best chance. Our offense doesn’t generate as many shots that we’d like, but day in and day out, he’s producing and capitalizing. He makes the most of what he gets.”
As a freshman last year, Leap had nine goals, and he will likely surpass that number in the Royals’ five remaining regular-season games. Senior captain Jared Troyer said teams underestimated Leap in 2008, allowing him to have success, while this year, teams are keying on him, and he’s still producing.
“Some freshmen, it’s too easy for them the first year, they don’t work as hard; they assume it’s going to be easy their next year,” Mast said. “Mitchell has been pretty motivated to not just make it a one-year impact, but wanting to get consistently better and better.”
Leap’s offseason training regimen consisted of flipping tractor-tires, swinging sledgehammers and sprinting while holding sandbags, all under the watch of assistant coach Mike Martin.
Nagging injuries that he suffered last year have not popped up this season. “I feel like, going into the second half of the season, I’m much stronger,” Leap said.
To develop creativity with the ball, Leap plays in a 3-on-3 turf league with friends and often fools around on blacktop to increase his feel for the ball.
Anything to get closer to Ronaldo’s level.
“I watch clips of him over and over just to figure out exactly what he did,” Leap said with a smile. “Before practice I try out new moves. Basically just watch whatever he does and come out and try to do that.”
So far, not a bad effort.