KENNEWICK -- Jake Zoulek will make any number of important decisions for the Southridge boys soccer team during an average game.
So it's difficult to imagine Zoulek not being able to handle himself on a soccer field, ever.
Yet, he swears that's what happened when he was presented with his first big decision on the pitch.
"I was 3 years old and playing indoor soccer. I was told to go to the referee to pick which side we wanted," said Zoulek, now a junior forward with the Suns. "I guess I was intimidated. I just remember crying."
So rattled was the tiny player that he couldn't gather himself enough to make the decision.
"I think they chose another player to go to," Zoulek said, smiling at the memory.
But this season, Zoulek will be "the guy" at Southridge, the one who will draw opponents' attention as one of the top returning strikers in the league.
But long before the speedy, 5-foot-11 forward started laying into CBBN defenses, Suns coach Chip Elfering recognized him as a possible force to be reckoned with.
"I first saw him play in seventh grade, and I was very excited he was going to be a Southridge Sun," Elfering said. "The biggest thing was his speed, but he's also very aggressive. He would see me there and he'd always be wanting to prove himself."
And prove himself he has.
Not only has he made an impression at Southridge, amassing 21 goals in his first two varsity seasons, but this season he's also embraced the role of being the team's top offensive threat.
"We're going to look for him to put points on the board. That's a lot of weight to be put on your shoulders," Elfering said. "His first year was the only time I worried about pressure. Since then, I haven't had any doubts he'd run with that role."
This season will be his first, however, without his brother John playing beside him. For the last two years, Jake and John helped lead Southridge to the first winning seasons in Suns history.
John, now a student at Eastern Washington University, still has a way of pushing his brother even from the stands.
"I always want to try my best and make an impression, but he makes a difference," Jake said. "My brother was at the game (Saturday, a 3-1 loss to Pasco) and it made me try a lot harder. I want to show him I was still really good."
John knows his brother has already made his mark.
So does the entire state of Washington, by the way. Zoulek has been one of the top club players in the state in his age group for the last couple years.
He was a big part of the Three Rivers Soccer Club U-17 team that reached the State Cup final in February. Zoulek scored a first-half goal in the championship game before Eastside FC came back to win 3-2.
Zoulek also helped Three Rivers reach the State Cup semifinals in 2010.
In fact, Zoulek is the reason the Three Rivers coach Mike Pardini employs a single-striker formation, which has resulted in 50 goals in 40 games for the 5-foot-11 forward.
"We wouldn't play that formation without Jake. We play defense first, and you have to have a guy up there who can hold his own," said Pardini, a former Pasco star who went on to play at Seattle Pacific. "It's a lot of wear and tear playing against four backs, but he has that confidence about him on the field. You can see it when you watch him play. He's not afraid to get into any tackle."
Speaking of tackles, Southridge football coaches have been trying to get Zoulek to put on the pads in the fall. And why not? When Zoulek estimated his 40-yard dash time at 4.5 seconds, Elfering is convinced he's even faster.
"I ran a 4.5 in high school, and he's faster than I was," said Elfering, who then paid Zoulek another high compliment. "Some games he could score four or five goals. The last person I've seen who can change a game like that was Mike Pardini."
After the recent loss to Pasco, Zoulek is concerned more about improving and working towards the team's goal of a league championship. But he's been most proud to continue Southridge's emergence as a league power.
"It feels pretty good to be a part of the tradition. We did pretty good my freshman year, and we've been progressing ever since," he said. "We have things to work on, but once we get them down this could be one of our best years."
* Jack Millikin; 509-582-1406; firstname.lastname@example.org