CV's man in the middle

Just a throw-in away from the Crescenta Valley High soccer field are several concrete walls. Most of the time, nearby residents occupy the territory to smash or loft tennis balls.

For Crescenta Valley boys' soccer player Alex Berger, he's got other ideas concerning how to use the walls to help him improve athletically.

Over the past couple of seasons, the standout senior midfielder has spent several hours a week practicing free kicks against the wall. He's found a target on the walls, pretending that it's a teammate.

"I get out on the weekend for about an hour or two and keep practicing it because it's an important part of the game," Berger said.

Berger should know. In a CIF Southern Section Division IV first-round home match against Laguna Beach on Thursday, Berger lined a 40-yard free kick that teammate Pavle Atanackovic headed in to give the third-seeded Falcons a 3-2 overtime victory.

Thanks to a fine play by Berger, a reigning All-Area first-team honoree, third-seeded Crescenta Valley (17-0-6) will meet Diamond Bar (11-9-2) in a second-round home match at 3 p.m. today.

Entering today's contest, Berger has registered eight goals and a team-best 26 assists for 44 points. No assist was bigger than on Atanackovic's goal Thursday.

"It's got a lot to do with experience," said Berger, who collected four goals and 15 assists last season and helped the Falcons advance to the quarterfinals. "You figure when you get in that situation that you feel like you always have a chance to score, especially with a guy like Pavle being there."

The UC Irvine-bound Atanackovic got around a Laguna Beach defender and headed the ball past goalkeeper Alec Williams for the winning goal three minutes into sudden-death overtime. Berger was one of the final Crescenta Valley players to join the brief celebration with his teammates at the corner of the field.

Atanackovic, who is the reigning All-Area Player of the Year, said only Berger could have made the accurate free kick.

"He's the facilitator of this team," said Atanackovic, who has notched a school-record 36 goals. "He distributes the ball well and he's also able to get our defense going when needed.

"He's someone whose got a lot of soccer experience. Soccer has basically been his whole life."

Berger has shown a knack for scoring big goals throughout the season for the Falcons, who went unbeaten in league (12-0-2) for the second season in a row. In a league-clinching win against visiting Pasadena on Feb. 3, Berger scored to tie the game at 1 a minute after Pasadena had taken the lead.

It's those kind of contributions that have provided the Falcons with an additional offensive force.

"He's got that instinct that a lot of other players don't have," Crescenta Valley first-year Coach Grant Clark said. "He sees things and understands the game so much better now.

"He plays the game at such a high level and he's always been intelligent on the field. He's the sparkplug of our team."

Berger said he's constantly finding ways to reinvent himself on the field, something that he said is needed when preparing for a big match.

"You have to be able to do a lot of things well during a practice and a game," Berger said. "I look for ways to create space for myself and that can be hard at times.

"It does get frustrating, but you have to find ways to get through it and keep improving. Sometimes you might only get that one opportunity in a game."

Berger and the Falcons figure to have another tough postseason match today with Diamond Bar, which Crescenta Valley beat, 3-2, in the opening round of the playoffs last season on an overtime tally by Berger.

"I'm pleased with my play," he said. "I've gotten a lot more mature and experienced."

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