Plasencia the Virtual Lifeblood for Santa Ana in Soccer Playoffs : High schools: Senior who missed early part of the season has turned the team around. The Saints take on Hawthorne in quarterfinals today.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gus Plasencia grinned the entire time he was talking, and he even laughed once or twice.

Of course, there is a lot to be happy about these days for anyone connected with the Santa Ana High School soccer team, but especially for Plasencia.

Gone is the pain in his leg from a nagging groin injury. Behind him is the tough decision--and with it the guilt--to go to Mexico with his family, which sent the Saints into a slump.

Yes, times are good again. Santa Ana faces Hawthorne today in the quarterfinals of the Southern Section 4-A playoffs and Plasencia is the big reason the Saints are still competing.

"We have everything going good right now," Plasencia said. "The guys are kidding around, giving each other a hard time, including me. It's fun when you're winning."

Plasencia, a senior, has been the force behind the Saints' success. He has 21 goals in 16 games, including three in the Saints' first-round victory against Don Lugo a week ago.

In the games he has played, Santa Ana is 12-2-2.

"Gus was the key all along," Coach Sam Buenrostro said. "We had other starters who missed games, but Gus was the kid we expected a lot from. He's the best player on the team."

There has never been much doubt about that.

Plasencia has been a starter since he was a freshman. His first season he played goalie and was named second-team All-Century League.

He moved to forward as a sophomore and had seven goals. Last season, he led the team with 13 goals.

With Plasencia and nine other starters returning this season, the Saints' prospects looked good. They were ranked No. 1 in the Orange County preseason coaches' poll.

But things turned sour in a hurry. Buenrostro lost three starters early, the most significant of which was Plasencia.

After coming out late because of football, it took a week for Plasencia to get into shape for soccer. Then, after two games, he pulled a groin muscle in practice.

He tried to play the next game against Mission Viejo, but limped off the field midway through the first half.

"I couldn't move without pain," Plasencia said. "I didn't think it would ever heal."

Plasencia then missed five games when his family went on vacation to Guadalajara. Buenrostro didn't think Plasencia should have left.

"I told him it was his senior year and he should stay with the team," Buenrostro said.

It was a tough decision for Plasencia, who said he will probably never get to visit his relatives in Guadalajara again. When he learned that his uncle was ill, he had no choice.

"I didn't want to leave the team, but I had to go," Plasencia said.

The trip actually helped Plasencia by giving his injury a chance to heal. When he returned, he was 100%.

Even hundreds of miles away in Guadalajara, Plasencia tried to keep tabs on the Saints. He talked with his sister in Santa Ana every night to find out how the team was doing.

What he heard was depressing. In five games without him, the Saints did not score a goal. They lost four and tied one during that scoreless streak.

Plasencia came back before Sunset League play began and Santa Ana's offense returned with him. He scored both goals in a 2-0 victory over Marina in the league opener. He then scored the Saints' first goal in their next game and the drought was over.

With Plasencia back, the Saints took control of the Sunset League. They finished 9-2-1 in league play and won their third consecutive title.

Santa Ana won the Century League the previous two seasons before moving to the Sunset League this season.

"The team kind of trusts me and they look for me to score," Plasencia said. "That's all right. I like being the hero.

"But I told them when I came back from Mexico that . . . we need to work together. I'm happy that it's worked out that way."

And when Plasencia is happy, everyone on the team is happy.

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